“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and help them to become what they are capable of being.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) German poet and composer
“You’re crazy!” The words stung and seeped into my mind more quickly than a sponge can soak up a glass of water. I couldn’t twist my mind like the sponge, though, to wring the words from my being. They were there, and it took years for me to understand the words spoken didn’t have to define me. I might be a little off the wall and out of the box at times, but I’m not actually crazy. Words are just that way, aren’t they? We can’t un-speak what we’ve spoken, and we can’t un-hear what we have heard. Words can be our most cruel weapon. The saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is as far from the truth as anything I know. Words can hurt us and words can break us. Instead of focusing on how they can hurt, I want to look at the good we can speak into someone else’s life.
A good friend was seen by a medical professional recently who remarked “I had to look at your chart a second time to see your age. You sure don’t look like what I expect a person of your age to look like!” My friend was delighted and accepted those words completely as truth, as they built her up and made her feel good about the care she had been taking of her health. “Do you realize what she did?” I asked. “She might have thought you looked horrible for your age, but she chose to speak a particular message to you that she surely knew would be empowering.” In all fairness, my friend does look great. What is age, after all, but a number? Perhaps I’m giving the person too much credit, but if the medical person had said “You know, you don’t look so well,” or “It looks like you are heading into your last leg of life,” my friend probably would have taken those words as much to heart. That is the power of the words we speak.
The words we speak to our children about their accomplishments and, more importantly, their aspirations, matter. If your child is never going to be taller than 5’5″, they might not be a star basketball player on the Los Angeles Lakers, but if their dream is to be in the NBA, you don’t have to totally shoot them down. There are other people necessary to the NBA besides the players, after all. I’ve wanted my sons to dream of who they want to be and of what they want to be doing in their lives. I’ve encouraged them always with words that would uplift them, but not empty fluffy words to simply inflate their egos. There is a difference, after all. When my kids have said “I can’t…” I’ve tried to counter with “Why not?” Challenging them to consider what they really can and can’t do. I’m not someone who thinks “I can’t” is a horrible statement, though, because I know there are things I can’t do, too.
It’s your turn. Think about what is spoken to you in a given day. What words have you noticed being thrown at or showered upon you?
- Maybe you aren’t the best handyman, but your significant other comments how nice it is to have someone who knows how to use a hammer. Most likely, you feel better about your skills and even try to improve.
- If you have someone else in your home who says to you, “You are such a great cook,” how does that make you feel? Perhaps you are no Julia Child, but do you see how you might be more likely to continue building your skills with such a nice compliment?
- If someone at work says, “Thanks for always making sure we have coffee,” doesn’t that dissolve any resentfulness you might have felt about always being the one who checks to be sure there is coffee? Sure it does.
- As in my home, maybe your spouse recognizes what a great provider, parent, or friend you are. Simply being acknowledged for our efforts usually makes us feel better about ourselves.
- “So and So, you are really doing a great job. I know it gets frustrating when you don’t get the sale, but hang in there. You are a born _____.” Fill in that blank, put your name in the “So and So” slot. How much better will you feel about doing your job with even more effort with words like that spoken to you, as opposed to being told you just aren’t measuring up still?
When you are mindful of your speech, you see the power of words to uplift and encourage, even empower. Putting people down comes all too easily, while kindness takes a little extra effort. Words can wound, but they can also leave us feeling better than we did. It’s a choice we make as the speaker of the words, though. That is the key for you, for me, for families, offices, churches, classrooms, gyms, mechanic shops, hair salons, grocery stores, dining rooms, retirement homes…the list could go on ad nauseam. Wherever you are, words will be spoken. Whenever you speak, lives will be changed.
It might have been the seventeen and eighteen hundreds when Johann Wolfgang von Goethe spoke the words in the opening quote, but the truth hasn’t changed a bit since then. While you are continuing in this season of hustle and hurry, dealing with seasonal workers and visiting family, remember to treat people and speak to people as if they were what they ought to be. Chances are, you will be a part of their story when they recount how they became who they were capable of becoming.