About two hundred homeless men and women recently taught me the power of words. The lesson felt new, even after I’ve been a writer for years, even after I’ve learned two new languages, and even after I’ve excavated each sentence of several spiritual books and texts.
One of these books was The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz. The author writes that the first and most important agreement to make with life and others and “the most difficult one to honor,” is “Be Impeccable with Your Word.” He explains in depth how words are a creative power and how intentions manifest through words. For example, one can harm others through misuse of the word, through an edgy tone, an insult, or a lie. On the other hand, one can create beauty and love through soothing, honest, and compassionate speech.
I learned this lesson this past Valentine’s Day at the homeless mission. A group of volunteer servers wanted to make the evening special for the guests who came, and so we arranged red tablecloths over the sterile long tables and placed single white roses in cups at the center. We were serving homemade pizza, Greek salad, and strawberries dipped in chocolate.
But more than the food, we wanted to give those who came the gift of feeling loved. So we also made construction paper cards and decorated them with stickers of hearts, stars, and dancing bears. On each card, we pasted one of twenty-five affirmations, such as “You have special gifts to give the world,” “You are loved,” and “There is good inside you that cannot be destroyed.” At the beginning of the food line, where each guest stood waiting to receive their plate, one of the volunteers would first hand the person a piece of candy, and then lock eyes and read the affirmation before handing over the card. We were rotating volunteers in and out of this position.
When it was my turn to do the readings, I immediately realized vulnerability was required of both the reader and the receiver. I had to truly believe what I was saying or the person would detect the inauthenticity. And that person had to be open to hearing the words, and thus willing to try to believe them.
Grown men, haggard and defensive, wearing layers of dusty clothing on a warm night, stood in front of me, shuffling their feet while they waited for the reading. As I delivered the message of each card, a feeling of warmth and light spread through my chest and my voice and gaze carried this energy, this love, to the person. And they received it. The men, almost imperceptibly, straightened their backs and lifted their shoulders. Their faces lit up. Most of them smiled—some shyly, some exuberantly.
One man was visibly jarred by the impact of the words, and stood for a moment, nodding and tucking in his lower lip. His eyes looked watery as he whispered, “Thank you.” Later, he came back into the kitchen as we were cleaning, and told us again that he appreciated the love we showed.
The late and gifted poet Maya Angelou also knew the power of words. “You must be careful,” she said. “Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally in to you.”
We must always be vigilant and mindful about our words. And not only the words we share with others, but also the words we keep for ourselves—our inner thoughts. Because we can create an internal heaven or hell with our words, just as we can create heaven or hell for another person. Thus, it is best to treat words like seeds in a garden, watering the seeds of love and compassion and allowing the seeds of pain and anger to become desiccated and barren. In this way, we have the power to create the kind of person we want to be and the world in which we want to live.
Florentina Staigers is a writer, social justice activist, and life coach. You can learn more about her at insight-outdevelopment.com.