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Your Words Matter

My daughter got her wisdom teeth out today and right before the surgery I asked her, “Are you ready to have four fewer teeth in your mouth?”

This question instantly brought to mind the words of my very mean, discouraging, angry-at-the-world high school music teacher. I remember very distinctly that a bunch of us students were sitting around the auditorium before some event because no one had told us what to do. Our teacher came bristling up the aisle and shouted at us, “Don’t just sit there with your teeth in your mouth, go something-something!!”

I honestly can’t remember what she told us to do, but I definitely remember the first part. “Don’t just sit there with your teeth in your mouth.” What a weird thing to say. I also remember for a split second thinking, as I sprang up into action, “Am I supposed to sit here with my teeth OUT of my mouth?”

Needless to say I did not verbalize that thought.

As I’m here thinking about this teacher, along with the slew of other discouraging, unkind, angry, and disappointed-with-their-lives people I have encountered over the years, and there have been A LOT, I’m thinking about how far even one encouraging word from even one of this people would have gone for me. What a positive difference it could have made for whatever I was going through at a particular time. What a difference an encouraging word…or at the very least, the absence of discouraging words could make for someone.

Most of the time when you see a pro athlete or actor or musician or someone in the public eye make an award acceptance speech, they will say something like, “I owe it all to my first teacher Mr. or Ms. So-and-So.” Or something along the lines of, “I wouldn’t be standing here without all of the support and encouragement from (insert influential in this person’s life’s name here).” The truth is, words matter, usually a great deal to the person who is receiving them, and I believe it is up to us every single day to put more positive, encouraging, uplifting words into the world. Because when we don’t, the results can be very damaging to hearts and souls and spirits.

Quick story: Many years ago I was over at a good friend’s house and there was a beautiful hydrangea in a vase on the table. It was absolutely exquisite, and I said to her, “That is such a beautiful hydrangea, is it from your garden?” (Let me just say here that up until that point I had been to many florist shops in my lifetime but I had never seen anything other than the usual roses, carnations, lilies, etc. that are typically seen there.) She looked up at me, blinked for a second like she couldn’t believe what she was being asked, and then responded, extremely exasperatedly, “Rachel! It’s WINTER.” Implying that I clearly was an idiot to ask such a question.

Allow me to reiterate again, the only time I had ever seen hydrangeas were on bushes in front of people’s houses, I had never seen them anywhere else and I considered them more of a “wildflower” that wasn’t available for purchase singularly.

I kind of babbled back, “Well I don’t know…maybe you have something indoors where you grow plants or flowers or something, I didn’t know you could just buy those.”

She kind of shook her head and sighed and went back to what she was doing, and I just stood there, feeling quite stung by her words and her attitude.

Looking back on it, was that the best way to handle that situation? Speak that condescending way to someone who is supposed to be a friend? Was her reaction lifting someone up or consciously and deliberately putting someone down? And how would she have liked to have been spoken to like that?

As an exercise for ourselves, let’s take a second to brainstorm a response that would have been not quite as insulting. Hmmm…perhaps she could have said:

“No, my husband got it from the new florist down the street, they do such great work,” Or: ”No, my husband picked it up earlier for the party, it is beautiful, isn’t it? I’m so glad you like it.”

Or, if she absolutely had to point out that it would be impossible to grow such a flower in the current season she could have said something like,

”No, the garden is all bedded down for the Winter, this came from the florist down the street.”

See what I mean? Any of those responses, plus the hundreds of others that you can think of, would have been a kinder, nicer, more friendly type of response, which had she made, would have turned that incident into just another conversation, instead of something that I’m still thinking about 15 years later.

We’ve all had times when we’ve made innocent or well-intentioned comments and had them slammed back into our face. We’ve all had situations where we’ve been actively looking for support and what we get instead is a put-down, the friend taking the other person’s side, or, one of the worst things, abject indifference to our current plight. How about if we remember those times when someone is looking to us for comfort or encouragement and we give him or her the words that we wish we had received in a similar situation?

I think when we’re making the choice to have joy be in the front of our minds, rather than the back, a good way to start is to consciously do what we can to bring happiness to other people. Often times that means being an excellent listener, and then asking ourselves BEFORE we respond, “What would I like to hear right now? What would be most beneficial to me if I were in their shoes?” It’s most likely not a comparison of how much worse off your own life is, nor telling them all of the reasons why they shouldn’t feel the way they do.

The truth is, you never know how long your words will stay in someone’s mind even long after you’ve forgotten you spoke them. That goes for positive AND negative words. Be the person that is remembered fondly for all of the happy and uplifting things you’ve said to people over the years, not the “teeth in your mouth” person. She, and the hydrangea person, both had the choice to help with their words or hurt with their words. How I wish they had chosen the former.

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