Use Your Words

I’ve loved words for as long as I can remember. Our family parsed words to death, arguing whether a word meant one thing or another. When I taught ESL in Poland, I made the bag pictured above with words from a favorite hymn because I thought an English teacher should have a bag with words. And Wordles were so much fun! They’ve kinda gone out of style by now, but I loved their eloquence and simplicity.

Sometimes I buy a thing just because of its fun name. Like a car air freshener called “High Maintenance” or a mini orchid because it’s named “Espresso Orchid.” It was white, not espresso colored, but it fit in an espresso-sized cup, and I found it irresistible, and am thrilled that it’s finally shooting out a bud stalk.

Words. Names. We fling them around. Label things. Describe ourselves, describe feelings, describe situations. And what a humdinger of a situation this year has been. What a stupendous opportunity to use words well, to let them sparkle, fly, heal.

I’ve seen healing words, heard them, received them. They infuse me with new energy and light. Words carry light, you know. Or darkness. Which is sobering. In mysterious, staggering power, words create our reality. We can name a thing wonderful or terrible, and it becomes that. Is this power part of carrying God’s image–the part of Him that named creation into existence? Is it akin to how Adam named the animals?

I’ve heard wise moms calm their distraught, screaming children by saying, “Use your words.” Then the child says, “I’m cold.” Or “He hit me.” Or “I want to go hoooooome.” Then the mom knows what’s happening, and the screaming stops.

I think this weird year gives us a fantastic chance to try to name what’s happening. We’ve heard lots of yelling, words flung around like daggers, weighted with hate and anger. We’ve complained, and tried to be strong, and given up lots of dreams, and readjusted our plans a hundred times, and cried a buckets of tears of deep loss and sorrow. We’ve worn out tired words like

unprecedented

anti-maskers

fraudsters

systemic

mitigation.

Anger and grief are real and valid and we should name them. Name them, own the tsunami emotions, and care deeply for those in hardship. Death, a serious health diagnosis, loss of home or loved ones, mental illness, front-line medical work, violence, and abuse deserve words like

suffering

devastated

crushed

agony.

God’s people should be leading the way in holding the broken hearted, comforting, helping, and offering quiet presence. If they speak, they should give gentle, luminous words, not judging or giving quick fixes.

In contrast, when a storm comes through and takes away electricity for more than 30 hours, or a vacation got cancelled, or masks are mandated for specific situations, we can use words like

uncomfortable

disruptive

disappointing

inconvenient

sad.

When I hear anger about masking or changes in holiday plans, I want to say, “Use your words!” And choose them appropriately. We can be sad and disappointed about many things, but if we’re not in a flapping tent in a refugee camp, and we have contact with our loved ones, and we didn’t bury a family member, are we suffering? I suggest not. I suggest we use our words.

The stark pictures of boots and crocs upside down outside a UNHCR tent in Greece (upside down so the rain doesn’t get in them, and outside so they don’t dirty the living quarters in the tent) calls me to be utterly careful how and where I use the “suffering” word. When I hear people yelling about masks, and being worried about the effect of COVID on our nation, I automatically think they don’t get out much. Am I being judgy? There are much worse, much harder situations across the globe that deserve our anger and our prayer. We can be honest about how we feel (anger or sadness doesn’t disappear by ignoring it), but we also need perspective and higher goals than keeping ourselves comfortable.

What if we’d use our words to name our situation with truth and grace like Jesus did? What if we channel our deep emotion toward gentleness, compassion, and caring for what is truly devastating? Could we create a new reality by naming things accurately?

I wonder.

8 thoughts on “Use Your Words

  1. I am so glad you used your words here! Thank you! Depression is a kind of suffering, and also needs words, so I keep praying that people who are feeling pulled under by isolation will meet those who can listen to their words in ways that heal and support. Also, I love word clouds, but have never had an app for it – I shall try to download from your link. :). Thank you for that too.

    • Yes! Thanks for mentioning that, Janelle. You’re absolutely right about depression being suffering. I should have included medical workers in that category too. I felt certain that I was being too categorical and knew there were things unwritten that should have been written, and you called out a very important point. Thank you!

  2. Good words Anita! The way you described negative and unhelpful word use reminded me of this quote from Walker Percy – “Ideological words have a way of wearing thin, and then, having lost their meanings, being used like switchblades against the enemy of the moment.”
    I am really with the way in which our words help make our reality. Truth exists whether we name it or not – yet we can either choose to name things/use words in accordance with it (and therefore make it real in our own experience) or we can choose to misname and misuse words in ways that divert our experience from the truth and from Christ who is the source of truth. Our words can also build others up by helping to solidify (or make real in experience) truth, goodness, and beauty, or they can be used destructively to tear others down and alienate them from life and joy.
    “Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof” Prov. 18:20
    “A wholesome tongue is a tree of life: but perverseness therein is a breach in the spirit” Prov. 15:4
    But enough philosophizing – your good words make me glad and I hope to learn to use mine to speak life and peace.
    Thank you for this!

  3. And I will take you words to heart, and push you a little further through the analogy. I have one child with childhood apraxia of speech (take it apart with your Greek roots: a = negative/not, praxis = practice; thus not able to practice/produce speech sounds). Innumerable people thought they were helping him by reminding him to “use his words.” His brain was fully aware what what he wanted to say, but the connection was disrupted, and the mouth could not produce the sounds needed to articulate thought. He could not “use his words” because the effort to produce them was muddled. Even now, after years of therapy — and he is mostly intelligible (imagine physically learning how to position each muscle for each speech sound, and then painstakingly piecing them together into words) — he will lose his ability when too tried or stressed. Trauma can erase words. We should attempt to put things into words, to name them, to put some order to our world. But there are times for all of us that we cannot. The effort is pushing against our physical limitations. So for my son, instead of telling him to “use his words”, we sometimes stepped in and helped: “You are frustrated. Or angry. Are those the words for your feeling?” Thus giving him space to calm down, to move on and later maybe he could speak more on his own. Gentle reminders to “use our words” can be effective. But for the most challenging of situations, we need to give our own words to others who cannot speak.

    • Thanks, Tamar, for your push. You speak from incredibly challenging experience, and I welcome your perspective. I know that my brief post gave a quick list of those who I consider are truly suffering, and I probably shouldn’t have made a list because I inevitably didn’t cover all of the possibilities. I was trying to make a point that we should use accurate words instead of yelling, but I hear you, and totally agree that in some situations, to offer words when someone has none is not only necessary but also life-giving.

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