by Libbie Kerr
A plaque belonging to my great-grandmother. The author of the poem (reproduced in full below) is unknown.
Keep a Watch on Your Words
Keep a watch on your words, my darlings,
For words are wonderful things;
They are sweet like the bees’ fresh honey;
Like the bees, they have terrible stings.
They can bless like the warm, glad sunshine,
And brighten a lonely life;
They can cut, in the strife of anger,
Like a cruel two-edged knife.
Let them pass through your lips unchallenged,
If their errand is true and kind,
If they come to support the weary,
To comfort and help the blind.
If a bitter, revengeful spirit
Prompts the words, let them be unsaid.
They may flash through a brain like lightning
Or fall on a heart like lead.
There are moments that shout out to you... and you listen, awed by the sound and the reality so clearly exposed. Such was my experience this summer, reading Jorge Waxemberg’s book, Words Matter, subtitled How to increase our self-knowledge and improve our relationships. Here is the shout out—I read the book and immediately wanted to share it with many people! Then I realized I wanted to forward it because I wanted "others" to understand the impact their words had on me... so in spite of myself, a little self–knowledge crept in!
I decided to write about the book, and began by interviewing several people about their relationship with words. The first is a person whose mother tongue is sign language. She was born to deaf parents and was thought to be deaf until she was three. For her, language is movement. It literally is moving hands and shapes. Physical. Next, I interviewed a group of people who speak many languages. Their relationship to words is to translate into what they know best and then choose from several languages the best words to express their idea. Their relationship with language is based on a broad context/knowledge of words. The last person interviewed has lost the ability to speak due to radiation treatment for cancer. For him, words simply cannot be spoken, so he finds other means of communicating through notebooks, "boogie" boards, computers and sign language. As I sat with these people, asked questions and listened to their responses, I grew increasingly aware that it was not so much the actual words people use that matter, but, as the subtitle of the book states, their relationship with the words: Do their words lead them to increasing self-knowledge and improving relationships?
I asked the first person what it was like to be in a deaf family. She said it was LOUD. Being unaware of the sound and only of the vibration of sound, footsteps, a door closing, cabinets shutting—all of these things were loud. Did she think she saw the world differently due to not using words for years? She explained she did not learn how to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end when she was growing up, as she had no context for speaking a story out loud, only the physical movement of signing the words. As an adult she had to learn how to tell a story. She said that she was always shy and did not speak up much, as she could not understand how to do so.
The ones who speak many languages find that words become a matter of selection. They purposely not only learn to speak new languages, they also learn to link the new language to the old and in doing so learn to see the root of many words. I am told by some that English is limited in its ability to express the nuances of words. For example, the word "love" can have so many meanings in English, but each of these meanings is expressed by a different word in Spanish. A friend of mine was one of the ones I interviewed. I had known her before she felt comfortable speaking English, and thought her quiet and shy. As she grasped more English, I realized her silence was not a personal characteristic. She was not a quiet person; her ability to communicate was limited by her knowledge of what words to use.
The one who had lost his ability to speak due to physical constraints had been a salesman. He had had a very charismatic voice used for sales, and this is in a very fast–paced world of selling oneself as well as the ideas presented. I wanted to know from him what it was like to now be in a world where his voice could no longer be heard. He spoke by "boogie" board and notepad, writing his responses down. He shared several stories illustrating how people responded to his inability to speak. In social settings where conversation freely flows, jumping from point to point, his method of writing and communicating is way too slow. Conversation has flowed past his comment by the time he has expressed it, making his part of the conversation a going back to a point already made. No longer a flow of thought. He told of an amusing incident of people taking his notebook in hand and writing their response to him rather than speaking to him. His silence was forced on him and he had to work at creating new and different ways of connecting.
All of these examples have in common the element of a silence that is not chosen. Whether from not being able to form the words because of language barriers or from physical disability, all the people involved had to embrace the fact that, at one time or another, they had trouble expressing themselves orally. Did this silence lead to more self–knowledge? In the case of the deaf family, the daughter took classes to learn to tell a story, in the case of language learning, experience and training allowed for more words to flow, and in the case of the physical limits, it was a matter of learning to utilize other things to allow for communication. Each of these people learned to accept where they were and, by responding effectively to their circumstances, to not be a victim.
In Words Matter, Waxemberg helps us look at silence as a vehicle for deepening self-knowledge and improving relationships. He uses the term “stopping” to express a silence that is freely chosen and that can reach our interior. The exercises in his book revolve around the practice of deliberately introducing silence into our inner and outer discourse. Inner silence is indispensable for looking inside ourselves and knowing ourselves better. Simply being silent because of circumstances does not mean that we will reach this inner silence.
With practice, and perhaps spontaneously, we begin to understand why we think and act as we do. The habit of observing impartially what’s inside us helps us to understand why it's there.
He offers practical exercises to expand self-knowledge: simple acts, easily applied:
- Set aside some time in a gathering to not talk about ourselves
- Pay attention to what others are saying and what interests them
- Stop the habit of focusing on our lives
- Stop defending our point of view
The beauty of these exercises is that they impact your level of conversation and communication. You find your mind stops focusing on what is going on in your life and your interests, and you discover that being open and listening allows space for the other person; you hear them differently. Instead of interpreting them through your language base and experiences, you delve into their perceptions. You realize that you are a part of a whole and recognize that their view is just as important as yours. At this moment you recognize the illusion of trying to understand another person in a conclusive way. You see that you are engaged in a process of opening and including, of increasing self–knowledge and improving relationships. The process is alive, moving, open and changing... and you become a part of that process as a willing participant.
Everything around us—everything that happens around us and to us—is continuously telling us something. To be able to hear that message, we first need to discover that it exists.
And we do this through chosen silence.