The Power of Speech

I just completed a JLI class at my Synagogue all about communication and the power of speech.  This morning, I had a perfect example of exactly what we’d been studying happen right in front of me in the grocery store line.

A coworker and I were standing in line to pay for some small purchases when a fight nearly broke out in front of us.  I didn’t clearly see the beginnings, but my coworker did and, being a former marine, he quickly stood between a very angry younger man and an older woman, diffusing what had become a pretty ugly situation.  The younger man was inches from the woman’s face, clearly upset and much larger than her.  With my coworker’s quick intervention along with another man, the man who was angry quickly left the store.  I spoke to the woman, asking her if she was all right.

In all fairness, she probably was rude to the man and both of their actions had a lot more to do with where they were before the checkout line.  As the young man left, he angrily related that his wife had just had surgery for cancer.  After he left, the woman admitted that she usually never speaks up for herself, but had “had enough” when she felt he’d cut in line in front of her.  Their words had so quickly escalated a situation.

As I spoke to her, making sure she was ok and calming down, I happened to say, “You know, maybe this is your bad luck for the day and the rest of your day will go really well.”  She suddenly smiled, her entire demeanor changing and replied, “Thank you, that really is a great way to look at it.”  She went on her way much more relaxed and, hopefully, she won’t have any more negative interactions today.

I’m not relating this story because I’m proud of myself.  I am really happy that I found the right words at the right time to help her, but I also wish that someone had found words that could have comforted the man, whose out of proportion anger was likely more about his pain and worries about his wife.  He may have been almost as surprised as everyone else by his sudden reaction.  The fact that he left quickly before anyone could really speak to him seems to me to say that he realized he wasn’t himself.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

This was just such a perfect example.  Everyone came into that checkout line carrying with them the weight of their past, if even just that morning.  My coworker and I were discussing a project he’s stressed about this afternoon when he became distracted by the growing altercation.  I was still mulling over my own stressful situation at work, an ongoing conflict with a customer’s engineer that I’m still trying to resolve.  The man had his wife’s health issues and recent surgery heavy on his mind.  The woman had years of feeling like she was too small to stand up for herself, resentment building.

For a fleeting moment, our lives intersected in a grocery store line and we had our words as our tools.

In Judaism we’re taught that words are so powerful that there are words we should never say, other words we should only say at certain times or during prayers, and yet other words that we should be incredibly careful to say.  There is an acknowledgement that words have power inherent in them and that we need to practice being intentional with our words.  There is also an understanding that once a word is spoken, it can’t be taken back, like an oath made in vain.  The entirety of creation was made with ten simple utterances from Hashem and so much can also be destroyed with simple misspoken words.

Sadly, this seems to be a concept that is lost in this time, when words have even more power than ever.  Words travel at the speed of light now, across national boundaries in an instant.  I can sit and measure the latency of a message in milliseconds, just fractions of seconds.  Anything over 200 milliseconds is now considered “slow.”  We have only to type out our words and hit send and our utterances can reach millions.

Our words have such power for good or ill and I’m inspired to slow down more and more carefully consider my words.  I can never know what has led another person to where they are, what lonely battles they are fighting.  I can, however, try to focus on kindness and using my words to bring just a little bit more light into this world.

I can try to be just a little bit more like the One in whose image I was made.

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