Recently a friend was telling me about an argument she had with her boyfriend. Their arguments had steadily been growing out of control and one day in the heat of the moment she raised her hand and slapped him. Soon after, they parted ways with hostility on both sides.
Her story reminded me of something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently; the power of words. Now, you would think that being an author I would understand something about this. And actually, so did I. But the funny thing I’ve come to realise is that the things you think you understand are probably the things you least understand. I thought I understood the craft of language. And perhaps I understand the technicalities but I don’t think I have a clue about the immensity of its power. For years I’ve been the sort of person who just says what is on her mind – I consider it my trademark to be honest and open about my feelings. But this also means that being a bit of an artist – I tend to express myself impulsively because I’m a tad (okay, maybe a lot) sensitive. I felt my emotions strongly so I wanted to express them strongly but I didn’t give a second thought to their impact and the shapes they were punching into the world around me. We speak so much, it seems so easy to do, that I think we forget about the meaning that belongs to each word.
It took something very jarring for me to realise how important language was; I was affecting how someone was changing and I didn’t know it. And when I looked at the situation of my friend and her relationship I could see the tangible result of my realisation. When you talk to someone with malice and spite you make them smaller. You might not see it, you might not feel it, but it does happen. It’s like a poison that slowly eats away at anything you build. It’s the first sign of loss of respect and without the foundation of respect a relationship quickly deteriorates. Words are powerful; they are the primary tool we use to communicate. Ironically the ones we care about are the ones we use harsh words with and they are the ones who take it to heart. Sometimes we even create the monsters we accuse others to be: because if your loved one thinks you really believe this of them, then they begin to believe it too and start acting accordingly.
There is a story where after being asked about how to enter paradise, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) details some virtues and summarises with: ‘Shall I tell you how you can get all of this?” He grabs his tongue and says, “restrain this”. As a child I always thought I understood that story – that it was an analogy about abstaining from gossip and slander. But there is a lot more to learn about the subtleties of the effect of the tongue – its impact is more significant than we understand.
When will we take responsibility for what we say to each other? The terrible part is when words lose respect the situation can quickly go out of control – like the moment she raised her hand to him. When words lose meaning, when words offer disrespect by being disrespected, we struggle to express ourselves and sometimes find more terrible ways to communicate. Words can end everything: marriages, families, friendships and careers. I’m still not sure why we treat words so carelessly when history holds such important examples.
So before we speak to someone, I think it’s important to take a moment to reflect, to craft and mould the words in our mouth before we push them out into the world with our tongues.
We owe it to each other as human beings.
(Originally published in the Sunday Tribune, Herald, January 2013)