Words Matter

A huge snowstorm struck New England this past week, dumping 18″ of snow on the already 2 feet we already had on the ground. My brother, Dave, was visiting from California and arrived Tuesday evening, just before the flurries started to fly. He had come for a couple of days to visit with my parents who live about 3 miles from us. Of course, he got snowed in with us, so their visit was delayed by a day. The night he arrived, the two of us did stop at my parents, where he picked up their car, knowing mine would not be good in the snow and drove back to our house.

We finally got plowed out on Wednesday night, so the plan was to pick them up on Thursday morning to go out to breakfast. However, along the way Dave got delayed en route. As he left our house in my dad’s 1990 Buick, he came upon a car that had spun out, struck an underpass and with steam pouring from the engine lay in the middle of the road. A woman was standing stunned next to the car – in the middle of the road. Dave pulled over and encouraged her to step off the road. She was shaken, but okay, and had called the police. Dave said he’d wait with her until the police came. He called my dad telling him he was going to be late . . . “There was a car accident. I’m waiting for the police to come. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

Simple words. For those on the scene, it would make perfect sense. But for my 86-year-old father, whose son from Berkeley, California was driving his car on snowy streets, those words meant something very different. Dave was in a car accident. Was he okay?  His car was totaled. He couldn’t afford repairs. Now what? He sat for an hour in a panic, not knowing what to do or what to think except imagine the unimaginable.

Of course, that was not the story. And Dave showed up with the Buick about an hour later without a scratch to find a very upset and shaken man. How words are used to convey a story matter. It’s important that the speaker is clear to the listener. And with an older person, talking slow, allowing for questions, and full explanations with as many details as needed are important.

In our national news this week we also heard about how words matter. Terms such as ‘civility’, ‘discourse’, ‘tone’, and ‘rhetoric’ have been all over the internet, talk shows, and radio following the horrific shoots in Tucson, Arizona. Conversations, whether it be a simple phone call about a car accident or discussing our views on health care or immigration, need to be spoken with the listener in mind. And when opinions differ, we need to respect the thoughts of the other person. We CAN agree to disagree.

Teaching Tolerance, an arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center, posted connections to their lesson plans for helping teach children and youth how to respect and listen to one another.

Even Jon Stewart, one who often seems to bait conversations and poke fun at others, used his platform and audience to tone things down. President Obama said as much in his speech at the Arizona memorial service, offering us some avenues to follow.

Share his speech with your youth, in print and on video. Talk with them about the crucial role that free and reasoned speech plays in self-government, and in helping us to bridge the barriers between us.  From Teaching Tolerance, here’s one idea about how to proceed. Take this excerpt from the speech:

“But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized—at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do—it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”

Words can heal or wound, Obama said. Words can shed light or generate heat. (Remember the car accident and my dad?) We can think of other comparisons—do we speak to convince others or to understand them? Do we want speeches that inspire hope or fear? When we are speaking to others, what are our words REALLY saying?

Ask your students to work together to come up with different pairs of contrasting outcomes. They can use any of these prompts.

  • Words can . . . or . . .
  • We speak to others to . . . or . . .
  • We can hear . . . or . . .

In what other ways could you use this speech in your congregation or Christian education program? And can you plan to encourage a conversation about civil discourse?

2 thoughts on “Words Matter

  1. I agree that words matter. I cringe, however, at the notion of “teaching tolerance,” for it is aimed at children, as though THEY were the problem.

    We know that very young children (pre-school) do not categorize individuals. If a white child asks a black child “how do you get so many braids in your hair?” it’s an honest question. They are curious, or may want to have the same thing. Small children do not need to learn tolerance. But older children and youth need to unlearn the intolerance modeled for them by parents and other adults.

    I wish that adults were the focus of our tolerance teaching.


  2. Yes, Mary Jane, adults are the ones who need the most education about this, but I fear so many isms are ingrained and adults are quick to jump on the ‘rhetoric bandwagon’ and don’t realize the power they have in their words and actions, and how children and youth can mimic their behavior.

    Teaching Tolerance is an excellent resource for children, youth, AND adults to learn ways to have open conversation and learn skills in which diversity is embraced. Children’s questions of wonder and innocence are not the problem; repeating the same behavior as past generations is. I think our churches could tap into their lesson materials for adult education just as much for children and youth.

    Thanks for your thoughts and contribution to the discussion!


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