Language is one of the most powerful tools we have.
It’s power to create and destroy is unrivaled by other animals. We create a new reality for our lives when we say “I Love You,” when we name a child or when we insult a stranger. While we can not summon a new car by simply saying its name, we can give shape to our plans and goals by expressing them.
There is an important story from the Jewish Hassidic tradition that speaks to the power of words in our interpersonal relationships. Rabbi Michael Gold tells it this way:
There is a well-known Hasidic tale of the man who spreads negative gossip about his rabbi. The man feels regret and goes to the rabbi to apologize. The rabbis says, "I accept your apology. But there is one thing you must do. Bring me a feather pillow." The man is puzzled but follows the rabbi's directions. "Now I want you to cut open the pillow and scatter the feathers to the wind." The man is even more puzzled, but he does it. "Now I want you to gather all the feathers." "That is impossible!" says the man. "So it is with gossip," the rabbi replies.
I used to believe that for words to have power, you have to mean them. But no longer. Casual offenses can damage just as much as well thought out assaults. In the current political climate it does not matter if the politicians mean what they say. Their words have the power to insult some and inspire others. For those of us listening, our silence is a sign of agreement.
In these difficult political times, my colleague Rabbi Michael Bernstein has written an insightful take on language as power in The Wisdom Daily called Talking About Donald Trump: Why We Should Channel George Orwell. In it he challenges us to engage in true and respectful dialogue:
How can language be used to expand and not shrink our vocabulary of reality? How can it be used to encourage, not dissuade us from engaging someone of a different view?
I encourage you to read the entire article, and to remember that in both our personal and public lives, we must use the power of words wisely.