What we say or write is much more than just sound or print: we build our own world with it. Words are the spirit’s vehicle for contact with reality; thanks to them we become conscious of our experience and are able to symbolise it. Words also give us the chance to signify any experience, from the banal to the transcendent: words help us give meaning to life.
Words allow us to perceive differences and contrasts. We approach the world through them. We create and explore real or imaginary universes with them. They are our bridge and path for understanding and recognising those around us, for discovering facets of them as human beings; and of course, they’re also a vehicle for reaching ourselves. Paradoxically, words also help us step back from things, get perspective and let things out. They allow us to move towards and away, to establish our own distances, to give of ourselves, or simply to leave.
“The word is half his that speaks, and half his that hears it,” wrote Michel de Montaigne. Words belong to both in sincere dialogues, when we listen carefully, when there’s a will to find the other. We find each other in them, and so they bring us together, allow us to exchange, to relate, to meet, and make us see, believe and grow.
There are words that condense experiences, feelings, longings, even lives: the name of a loved one, the song that evokes a memory, the poetry that lives inside us, the voices of our feelings. Sometimes when we hear words like child, friend, father, mother, or particularly the name of the person we love, they evoke and recreate a world of memories and emotions which is sometimes even richer than everyday reality.
There are simple, immediate, adequate, kind words that are gifts. Expressed spontaneously, “goodbye”, “thank you”, “please”, or “I love you” can illuminate a moment, and in some circumstances become the memory that gives meaning to a life.
Sometimes, a kind, sincere voice is much more therapeutic than any medicine. A gesture or the right voice can change your mood in an instant. Words give rise to laughter, joy, tenderness and the most unexpected moods. Words can be the agents of inner alchemy: they can ease pain, grapple with our doubts, anger and blame, end mourning processes, heal wounds, resolve fears, untie bonds, even perhaps end forms of inner or outer slavery: bring freedom, make us free.
There are hollow words and words full of meaning. A single voice can, depending on who expresses it, move, cause indifference or repel. More important than what is said is how it is said, and who says it. Because words can also be manipulated like puppets and distance us from reality. Anything from euphemisms to oxymorons magically perverted in press conferences can do this. Repulsive vocabulary like “preventive war”, “enemy fire”, or “collateral damage”, are part of today’s media language and end up becoming diluted in the river of infamy we take to be “normal”. Said in stupidity or dishonesty, or radically irresponsibly, words pervert reality. But it’s not the words themselves that do it; it’s the bilious mouth of the speaker that depraves them. Lies dressed up as the truth can slip into our consciousness through the back door, undermine common sense, and sow the seeds of madness, hatred and death.
Interestingly, the dictator’s most feared enemy is the poet. The human being who gives voice to what is essential, nakedly, is usually the first to be lined up against the wall and gunned down or shot in the back. Nothing worse than the ignoramus, the narcissist, the perverse and self-worshipping emperor against whom the child in the story bravely and transparently shouted, with the freedom of innocence, “The Emperor is wearing no clothes!” But bullets are nothing against the spirit nor fire against books once the word has been spoken. Because “Words are the most powerful weapon,” according to philosopher Raimundo Lulio. They have the fiercest of power to denounce, to reveal, to bare, inform, move and convince.
And no less important than words is what contains them: silence. The space between voices, breath held, subtle, timid or discrete expressions and movements that give meaning to what is said. The silence that can reveal either the abyss that separates us or the closest union. The quality of the silence that is built through the quality of the words we’ve sown during the time we’ve spent with another person.
And precisely because of its extreme obviousness, sometimes the following principle ends up being forgotten: we can choose the words we use at any given moment to relate to others, even to relate to ourselves, to build reality with others and create our own realities. Choosing the right words at every moment is an exercise in conscientiousness and responsibility. In every situation and with every person this small choice can make the difference between encounter, dialogue or quality – as opposed to distance, rupture or the destruction born of unconsciousness. This is its greatest power. Human words: divine words.
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