Last updated on February 17, 2021
This week, I started my next class, Informal Logic, and it brought up a very weird little dichotomy of me: I’m very literal-minded, specific meanings are very important to me, and yet I speak English, which is becoming so anti-nit-picky that the meanings of words I rely on everyday (and the rules that govern them) are kicked around regularly. On one hand, this induces a level of anxiety as I try to figure out what people want from me or how to express myself effectively or why the rules are changing, but on the other hand, it also presents an opportunity to value words a little more than I used to.
Okay, I don’t know if that’s an absolutely true statement, implying that I could value words more, but maybe I understand why I value them more. Yeah, that feels “right-er”.
But, before I get into what words are most powerful to me and why, let’s touch on something that doesn’t get quite as much air-time, and that is why words have “magic” in the first place.
I noticed just this past week that there were certain words shared between the Saint and I that had a lot more power for me than they have had for or from anyone else, and that got me to thinking. I know I meant these words to other people in the past, but they did not create the same kind of physical reaction I’ve been experiencing recently. Perhaps my “hyper-rational emotions” broke the feeling down back then to the point where I was conveying an intellectual observation, or maybe the words themselves had a different meaning – an axiomatic meaning – that was not something I experienced tangibly.
Words as we utter them are the sounds that emerge from the thoughts that generate somewhere in our grey matter. The argument can be made that the intention of the word (the point of origination) that emerges from this process is as important as the definition, and whether that intention is a sub-lingual or sub-audible experience or expressed specifically through inflection, tone, and trill is a matter for a different discussion. The point is that what you mean (and what you understand about what you mean) is as important (if not more so in some cases) that what you say.
Let’s examine what is considered to be the most common lie on the planet. I’m a little disappointed that only one of these articles realized this, or maybe they were just too embarrassed to mention it, but the real most common lie is “I’m sorry”. And it’s not because people aren’t sorry they hurt someone or said something dumb or broke a toy or whatever, but because the reflex to apologize instead of actually stopping to feel it has been ingrained and trained into us by years and years of “… and now what do you say?” or “Apologize right this instant!” or “Say you’re sorry!”
Why are we supposed to apologize for something? I have developed the belief that we apologize because we 1) recognize that we have made a mistake, 2) that someone or something else was negatively impacted by that mistake, 3) that we need to acknowledge that impact, and 4) that we are now committed to learning how not to make the mistake again. All of these things are supposed to be packed into this tight little phrase – “I’m sorry” – although we also are supposed to tell the recipient what we’re apologizing for. “Oops, sorry” is not anywhere near as powerful as the intentional “I’m so sorry I said that, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings”.
I’m a big, big fan of “if you don’t mean it, don’t say it”, but I know not everyone is like that. Trying to discern if they “mean it” or not has always been a really big problem for me, but, again, these recent experiences are bringing new realizations to light about that.
Some of the other magic words are equally common but should be more powerful with intention are “please” and “thank you”. “Please” is meant to mean “it would please me greatly if you would _____ and thus bring yourself favor,” because remember that “please” really means “to make happy“. Likewise, “thank you” is meant to be a true expression of gratitude and appreciation. When we ask someone to do something, please, we’re letting them know that we will appreciate their efforts, hence the equal need to say “thank you” to validate our promise.
Is it starting to make sense?
So, when we start talking about “magic words”, we have to legitimately answer for ourselves the question, “what makes the words magic?” For me, it really is about intention more than anything else, and I have begun to recognize that I perceive that intention from others as well on some level I didn’t really notice before.
And going back to that whole “literal minded” thing, it’s actually a vital part of the puzzle equation that I see in my head, and that’s probably why it makes me crazy when people don’t talk to me about what’s bothering them. I can’t discern or infer from a single source what their intention is, I have to do what I’ve started calling “emotional triangulation”. If my Lili is sitting there with her arms crossed and a furrowed brow, I will not immediately assume she’s angry unless her motion or movement indicates that she is (stomping her feet or lashing out). And even then, I cannot assume why she’s angry or at whom until she speaks about it. Even if she’s telling a technical lie (“I’m fine” or “it’s nothing” or “I’ll get over it by myself”), the data held in the words is more than the words themselves, and I’m able to understand more about her condition.
Just looking at my own experience, I’m finding that it’s also not just negative feelings or emotions (which is good because that suggests to me that it’s beyond purely limbic) but also for the positive feelings. I don’t or can’t assume anything just from action or sometimes even just from words. I have to have multiple coding points to really comprehend something all the way.
And that’s where the really powerful magic words come in. An honest compliment can have me grinning for days, and a harsh word can send me on a quest for deeper understanding to solve the problem, so long as each has been expressed with an intention. I sometimes really wonder how many people really and truly put thoughts behind the words they unleash, whether they formulate and play them out in their heads like I do. I wonder this because I already know I’m at a disadvantage there in that I also think in images and glyphs, that I have to have an extra step or two between the symbol and the meaning, but is it just easier for everyone else? Do they do it so quickly that I don’t notice or do they respond so automatically that they don’t understand what they say, and only after the fact decide that that’s what they wanted to say all along?
This is the fodder for longer intellectual discussions, preferably with a bottomless pot of coffee and/or tea, but let me at least share this before I wonder off to another linguistic adventure:
Every single word that comes out of your mouth is magical. It can be powerful and strong and attract incredible things to you, or it can be small and weak and fail to defend you against the not-so-awesome things. That magic is important between you and your loved ones before anyone else because that sets up the pattern for what the rest of the world hears.
Speak to your kids with kindness, even when you’re mad. Speak to your lover with love, even when you’re frustrated. Afraid they won’t know how you feel, that they’ll disregard your emotion? Try saying something as simple as, “I’m very angry right now,” which, just like “please”, has a greater meaning. Embrace that magic in your words, think about and consciously give your intentions to what you say, and maybe you’ll get to use fewer words for bigger yet more accurate feelings (which leaves plenty of room for doing something with them later).