by Annette Bridges. © 2007. All rights reserved.

My mamma always taught her children, “If you can’t say anything good, don’t say anything at all.” What is it about the words we say that can have such an arousing impact on the recipients?

Consider how you feel when you hear. . . “I love you” or “I’m sorry” or even “I hate you.” Such words evoke strong emotions — of love or pain or fear. Words have the potential to leave indelible marks on hearts and lives. So perhaps we all need to be more mindful of what we say or write.

From the day each of us was born, we were hungry for words. We wanted to understand our world and interact in it. Even those of us who cannot communicate through speech, communicate words through sign language, symbols or Braille. Words allowed us to shape our identity and our ideals and became the basis for expressing our passions to others.

Imagine the songwriter who spends days looking for the perfect word or phrase. Or the minister who spends hours penning her sermon. Or the young couple belaboring over what will be their marriage vows. Words are carefully and purposefully chosen, and the results are powerful.

Think about the resonating words that are remembered from generation to generation. Such words as those from Martin Luther King — “I have a dream” — or from John F. Kennedy — “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” Neil Armstrong thought carefully about what words to say when he took that first step on the moon — “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” These guys knew the potency of words.

And what about the timeless words of yet another man — Christ Jesus. Even though his words, when first spoken, were often not understood, appreciated or wanted, they have endured through centuries. Powerful words such as — “Judge not that ye be not judged”. . . “Peace, be still”. . . “Fear not, believe only”. . . “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free”. . . “Wilt thou be made whole”. . . “Go and do likewise.”

These words, whether speaking to multitudes or individuals seeking healing or students eager to understand his teachings, instructed and transformed many lives and continue to do so today.

Yes, clearly words can inspire, motivate, encourage and heal. But words can also dishearten, hurt, discourage and destroy. So, the old adage, “Think before you speak (or write)” should be seriously pondered. In my marriage of 25 years, too many times I have forgotten to think before I voiced words that I later regretted. While I know it’s true we forgive those we love for things they say and don’t really mean, I know hurtful words can leave haunting marks on a heart. This makes me want to try very hard to remember to think and listen before I speak.

Knowing the right words to say as a parent can be difficult sometimes. But raising my daughter helped me learn how important it is to really listen to what our children are saying to us before we answer them. Listening became a prerequisite to understanding. And words that came out of understanding seemed to be the most insightful, effective, and instructive and led to the best and most desired results.

The “power of the press” takes on added meaning when you consider how much our lives are shaped and guided by the words that surround us. What happens when lies get mistaken as truth or important details are left out or slanted or distorted?

In every language, words communicate wants and needs, likes and dislikes, purpose and intent as well as threats and warnings. Words are the universal vehicle used to teach children, establish governments, inspire faith and beliefs and justify actions, behavior and wars.

For good or for bad, words are the driving force in our world. Given the power and use of words in our world, perhaps taking steps to better listen and understand words that people and nations use is a first step toward changing and improving our world. We must consider more carefully the words that are used to communicate, educate and inform. And if they are not good, then maybe they should not be said.