Often, I would remind frustrated youngsters in school — “Use your words!” This was meant not only to teach them the strength of their words, but to forestall a kicking, hitting or tackling situation.
Now, I find I’m using my words more and more. It might be that old age has loosened some of the fears of being too outspoken, too familiar, too quirky. Our time left on Earth is always questionable, but especially for the elderly; we want to get to the meat of exchanges, and in our best moments, say, “I notice you. I care about you. I love you.”
My words often surprise me. They just seem to tumble out on their own. To shivering people sleeping under an overpass, I say my usual departing words, “Take care of each other.” To a frightened homeless woman in the hospital, I say, “May I bless you?” To a man crying while getting dinner at the food truck, I hug him and say, “You are not alone.”
These are my good words. We all have them and use them sometimes. We say — “Nicely done!” “You’re special.” “You make me smile.” Sadly, we have hurtful words and use them too. We say — “Loser.” “You’re lazy!” “You’ll never amount to anything.”
Oh, the precarious perch we teeter on! Words — written, spoken or signed— are the placeholders for our ideas and feelings. They are the building blocks of language that connect us to each other, sharing feelings, solving problems, and describing dreams. Or dread.
Many years ago, I was part of a team that created a Family Child Care Center in an inner city. One of our goals was to help the children, infants to kindergarten age, be more successful in elementary school and beyond. The parents of these children were recent immigrants or part of generational families living in poverty. Housing, food, medical care and jobs were foremost in their minds understandably. Words were not.
The staff and the volunteers at the center focused on building vocabularies by speaking in full sentences whenever possible and reading books to the children frequently throughout the day. First nouns, labels, were emphasized with the babies and toddlers. Then verbs, the actions words everyone loved, were highlighted. And finally adjectives and adverbs, the more abstract descriptive words that elevate communication, were stressed.
With developing language skills, the children began first to understand words and eventually to say or sign what they wanted and describe what they were feeling. Slowly with each child and within age groups, tensions seemed to abate a bit. The power of words made the children feel more in control. Peace was replacing war.
We adults are not so far from these youngsters in many ways as we try to discuss ideas or describe emotions without violence. Words; however, often escape us in times of exasperation. Topics of religion, politics, education, jobs, money or the media often ignite us. And in families, words can bring out the worst in us as we try to say what we mean. We fling about one syllable curse words or multisyllabic derogatory words most of us can’t even spell. We use words as weapons. We use words to distance, to separate, forgetting that words that inspire, words that solve problems, and words that unite have the most energy.
What can we do? Could some of these considerations help center us?
• Ask more than answer.
•Praise more than preach.
• Engage in dialogue more than monologue.
• Speak up on matters of injustice with controlled passion.
• Search for solutions humbly and discuss differences civilly.
• Spot goodness and applaud it.
•Forget having the last word.
In addition, let’s create a personal cache of words ready to support others in need. For example — “Go for it,” “I appreciate you,” “Good idea.” Stock a supply of words ready to deflate a negative situation, when our first instinct might be to deliver a sassy comeback. Instead trying something like — “I’m listening,” “How can I help?” “What can we do together to make this a win/win situation?”
A mini prayer for me —
“Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips.”
Judy Knotts is a parishioner of St. John Neumann Catholic Church, and former head of St. Gabriel’s Catholic School and St. Michael’s Catholic Academy. Her newest book, “You Are My Brother,” is a collection of past American-Statesman faith columns.