We cannot see them or touch them, and we often cannot even find them! But they are crucial to our lives nonetheless, especially when we begin to feel anxiety rise within us.
Yes, words are powerful tools to quell panic and inspire calm, strength, and peace! But, too, they can stir anger, anxiety, and a frenzy that can spill into awful action. The phrase, “Them’s fighing words,” does (no pun intended) carry a punch.
Years before I wrote my first book, I became fascinated with language. Besides English, I learned French, Spanish, and some German, Russian, and Irish Gaellic. Later, I studied translation, the careful choosing and forming of words and sentences to convey meaning from one language to another – a very difficult thing to do, even for a native speaker of any tongue!
Also, I added the study of linguistics – the science of language – which helps us understand why we say what we do and how where we live and who we are impacts what we say.
All of this preparation has led to authoring books, and for me, writing is a purely joyful pursuit from beginning to end. But it is also something I approach prayerfully and carefully. I understand that each word has a certain meaning, a weight and a place among all the other words in a sentence.
And I also understand that the words I or anyone else chooses to use can influence thoughts, feelings, and actions.
We see the power of words at play in today’s news cycles, where inflamed speech can lead to tragic outcomes and rifts that might never fully heal. We see this, too, in our homes and churches, where words and phrases can knit together very different individuals and unite us in one purpose, one Spirit.
Just as potent, words that we use to describe who we are can impact how we feel about ourselves and the ever-turbulent, yet truly beautiful, world around us. For example, saying, “I’m frazzled,” burrows within as a statement of identity, as who we are, and very surely validates again and again our inner sense of instability.
Yet, if we tweak that phrase ever so slightly – “I feel frazzled” – we are distancing ourselves from the same sense of instability while still recognizing its presence. We feel frazzled, but this is not how we intrinsically are, nor is this our true place, which is so much more and so much better - our place as Children of our loving God.
And when we take this approach to heart, we become stronger and more able to cope with any crisis because, although we might feel incapable, with God by our side, we can’t fail!
In Don’t Panic!: How to Keep Going When the Going Gets Tough, I talk about how we each react differently in a crisis. Some of us sob and sob and then calmly take care of the situation. Others of us might get very angry that something is going awry in our lives. Still others might freeze, stunned and not sure how to behave or what to do.
Emotions in these situations can be as fluid as a river coursing over rocks, jumping and foaming, but still moving on.
For example, the frantic pacing and sobbing that I did when I received the news that my brother had died was not a reflection of who I truly was. If it had, it would have seemed as if I was completely snapping and would be unable of handling any of the necessary details to get through the situation.
Yes, I felt anguish, confusion, and deep despair. I did need to go through this stage of grief, as dramatic as it seemed, a very important kind of emotional deep breathing. And having done so, I could then be calm and move ahead, stronger because I had expressed my sorrow in my own way and could then move ahead. I am fundamentally a resilient person, although at times, like that running river, I experience emotional turbulence.
As people of faith, we often talk about hating the sin, but not the sinner. In our language, when we talk about the misdeeds someone has committed, we sometimes blur this distinction.
For example, we might say, “He’s a felon,” (implying the person has no chance of being rehabilitated or forgiven.) If we say, instead, “He committed a felony,” we have a better opportunity of separating the deed from the person in a merciful and faith-focused way. We can then begin to move toward acknowledging the deed is wrong, but the person is still a child of God.
We can do this with ourselves, too, catching phrases that might imply we are less than who we truly are. “A bundle of nerves.” “Weak.” “Unable to cope.” “So angry I can’t think straight.” When we think or say this is who we are, we benefit from a step back – an emotional and spiritual deep breath – to remember who we are while still acknowledging how we feel.
Then we can invite God’s strength and grace to flood our hearts with light. We can lift our prayers in positive, restorative language and allow our Spirit to bring forth who we are.
Feeling panicky these days? It’s all right. Remember who you truly are, and how much strength you have inside. Remember that God is with you through the worry – all the way. Use words that inspire confidence, wisdom, and patience. And you will get through, blessed.