You are what you speak
By Hyon O’Brien
A good friend surprised me one day at lunch by pulling out a piece of paper he carries around and showing it to me. It was a quotation of the late President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004): ``Live simply, care deeply, speak kindly. Leave the rest to God.”
I have given some thought to these maxims. Particularly to the ``speak kindly” part. I offer three illustrations.
During my primary school years, it was a custom then for the home room teacher to make an annual visit to each pupil’s house to learn about the family environment. My teacher, Miss Kim, asked my mother, ``What kind of a kid is Bonghyon at home? She is a good student at school but I want to know how she behaves while I am not around.”
To this day I vividly remember her response: ``Oh, she is a totally reliable child. I have nothing to worry about with her.” I was only 10 or 11 at the time, but I swelled with pride that my mother chose not to speak about my multitude of misbehaviors and chose instead to give positive feedback. She not only gave my teacher a good report but this incident made a very conscientious child out of me. Even as an immature girl, I somehow knew I could never disappoint my mother’s confidence as an affirmation of myself. More than fifty years later, I still glow when I recall that scene. Indeed the power of words is evidenced in this episode.
A story I heard that happened during the Korean War: A mother and her son were fleeing North Korea and heading south. The mother entrusted her young son with a sack of rice to carry on his back. While the mother was lagging behind, he kept forging on. One man approached him and offered to help. This guy took the sack and placed it on his back and took off. The young boy ran as fast as he could not lose sight of the thief.
However, he came to a fork. He was in a dilemma. If he followed the bad guy to recover the rice, there was a possibility of getting separated from his mother. With much regret and anger, he stopped and stayed at the fork on the road to wait. When she arrived, he was crying and told her what happened. Her reply was, ``Son, you did the right thing. What a wise decision you have made! I am proud of you.”
One can imagine how relieved he must have felt! He was already kicking himself with remorse at losing their only source of food. His mother knew he already paid for the consequence by seeing his inner anguish. What happened to the son? He got a doctorate and was a college professor for many years. He always remembered to speak kindly all his life.
The other day a friend alerted me to a brief YouTube video titled ``Change Words, Change the World.” This clip, a little more than a minute long, presents a blind beggar on a street. The sign next to him read ``I am blind. Please help.” Many people passed by without noticing him, some dropped a coin or two. One young lady stopped and rewrote the sign, and suddenly everyone seemed to want to drop coins into his can. She had written, ``It is a beautiful day and I can’t see it.” The same idea with different words. Wow, the power of words!
It is so true what the writer of the Proverbs 12:18 said: ``Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
Do we utter words carelessly and end up wounding others deeply? Can we cultivate the habit of saying things that build others up, that bring hope and healing to listeners? Can we watch what we say and how we say it to make a conscious effort to be aware of how we talk to others?
Maybe we should write down daily what we say and how we say it to ask ourselves:
``Was I more optimistic and positive than critical and negative?”
``How often were my statements judgmental?”
``Is there something I wish I hadn’t said?”
``How did my words affect others?”
``What did my body language communicate?”
I personally realize that when I speak words that are positive, hopeful, and uplifting, it creates an atmosphere of peace, courage, love and joy. Negativity, criticism, blaming and complaining make matters worse and keep contentment away.
We have a Korean saying, ``One word can pay off a debt of 1,000 nyang.” It is an excellent reminder that what we say, and how we say it, can change everything.
Let’s give someone today a little lift, give a kind word as a gift. Let’s remember that ``we are what we speak.”
Hyon O'Brien is a former reference librarian now living in the United States. She can be reached at email@example.com.