By Scott Elliff
“Words are things,” the inimitable Dr. Maya Angelou once said. “You must be careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance. Don’t do that.”
She continued, like a prophet, “Someday, we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery and your clothes, and finally, into you.”
As an educator, I learned early in my career that a single word, rightly chosen or ineptly used, could make all the difference in my students’ likelihood to grasp a difficult concept. Later, as a school district leader, I was taught again and again, often in very difficult situations, that the words I chose could be consequential — for better or for worse — for our staff and students.
I learned, as a school-aged child, the lasting power of words when other students mocked me in the hallways, tossing “sissy,” and much worse, in my direction. Decades later, those words have proved to be a struggle to forgive and, apparently, impossible to forget.
And how many of us look back at those times in our families when, as parents, siblings, or children, our words chosen in anger or thoughtlessness left indelible stains on the delicately-woven fabric of our most treasured relationships?
In his book, The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz suggests that words are powerful things, indeed. “The word is not just a sound or a written symbol. The word is a force,” he writes. “Your word is pure magic, and misuse of your word is black magic.”
The ubiquity of social media has created a new environment in which the power of words has become evident. I conducted a self-intervention and extracted myself from Facebook in March. Beyond being a means of sharing family pictures and nostalgic memories with long-lost schoolmates, the platform was becoming a caldron of vitriol, some religious, some political, and much ill-informed. Others’ words fanned the flames of my emotions, and I admitted to myself that I was becoming more a contributor to the problem than a part of any solution.
Each of us has both a gift and a responsibility in our ability to speak and write words. We can build up one another with words of respect and encouragement, even when our perspectives differ.
But when we are careless in our descriptions of people who think or live or love differently than ourselves, we cannot be certain of how those words will “get into” other people, as Dr. Angelou said. They may fan the emotional flames of someone whose actions will have dire and tragic consequences. Such is the nature of “black magic.”
I concur with the editorial appearing on these pages this past Tuesday (“Take care not to judge in this troubled time,” about the snap judgments in the immediate aftermath of the Orlando massacre) — we would be wise to slow our rush to judgment in times like these. I would add that we would be wise to choose carefully the words we speak — to ourselves and to the world.