Words Can Harm or Help

Don’t get me wrong. I love words. Sometimes words feel like the inhalations and exhalations that mark the flowing stream of life. The time each day when I pause long enough to notice the rhythms of my breathing is when I am sitting in the sunroom before dawn. During that hour or so of reading and pondering—always breathing whether I notice it or not—I am most likely to write something about how it feels to be alive. That is when an insight may capture my attention enough that I will lay a book down–because I don’t want to forget a feeling that flits through my mind like a firefly circling a garden.

My wife’s mother died last week, taking her last breath on a final evening, just short of 95 years. She hadn’t eaten or drunk anything for days beforehand. When we saw her the day before, she didn’t seem to be aware that we were sitting on either side of her bed. There were none of the outward signs that she was aware of her environment or heard the few things we said to her. Of course, what I thought of as the environment in which the three of us were joined in that room may not have been the one in which she may have been fully present—no longer viewing her experience through the cognitive apparatus that had been progressively failing her for more than a decade.

Words can be like waves that lap against a shoreline, registering some distant event: the passing of a boat midstream, or wind dipping down from above and skimming the surface like a gull in search of supper. Words cycle in our minds like water circulating in our blood stream. They are the foundation of our thinking like earth giving stability to our bones and muscles. Coming and going as we listen and speak, words are like the breath that carries oxygen to every cell and expels the processed carbon in the sigh of each outbreath. Like the warm energy of our metabolism, processing all we consume, language digests, with or without our attention, our daily bread of thought and feeling.

Words take on the faces of the elements that make up our embodiment: steady, fiery, spacious, circulating, moving in and out of consciousness. In turn inflammatory, grounding, inspiring or dispirited, we announce who we are in how we speak. In the process, we may see that we are not who we wish we were. Sometimes our words fly into the sky in search of an ineffable presence that passes by like wind in the branches of our minds. Sometimes our words are like stones tossed into the surface of a lake which sink, irretrievably, never to be recalled, leaving on the surface the upended paper boats of our intentions that continue to float across the surface of our life.

As time flows on and the ripples subside, running their course, those ripples can feed into time and generate the life-giving energy we need. But only if we hear them and take responsibility for the bridge that speech builds between our intentions and our actions.

Earth, air, water, fire and space; those are the elements that intermingle and collaborate to provide us a home and to reveal a field outside our door. Without our home, who would we be? Without a world to explore, who could we become?

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