Words are powerful. No doubt about that. Whole civilizations have risen and fallen on the power of words. Words can move mountains; they have the power to heal, or the power to destroy. Our ability to communicate through words is part of what makes us human. But sometimes, their power is much more simple, much more existential, than what our egos lead us to believe.
The other day, it became crystal clear to me just how powerful words are, even when used simply.
Let me set the scene up for you: I live in an inner urban neighborhood in a moderately large US city (Minneapolis, Minnesota). Even though I grew up, for the most part, in small, rural towns, I enjoy living in the inner city; I find it dynamic and personable. However, I will not deny that there are some drawbacks to living in the heart of the city, and one of those drawbacks is the noise level. Although my neighborhood is mostly residential, and I’ve known many of my neighbors for decades, there is a transient element that isn’t too concerned about whether or not they are being obnoxiously loud.
I try to be tolerant of loud music blaring from the apartment building across the street or the rental house a few doors down from mine, especially if it’s apparent that there is a party going on. If it’s one of the first nice days of spring, or it’s a Saturday afternoon, I’ll grit my teeth and bear the frustration of thumping bass lines and an inability to escape the sound, even with the doors and windows closed. Generally, it’s not that bad. I can tell myself that loud music is not aimed at pissing me off, but is an act of celebration, and that helps.
But there was one Saturday morning, when that wasn’t the case.
It was a beautiful morning. I had gotten up early, to read the newspaper on my porch in the coolness and the quiet, in the hush after the birds have sung their morning songs and before the rest of the world wakes up. I love reading the newspaper on my porch on these mornings; it’s my little slice of perfection.
But then the music started. I’m not sure where it came from, for there was no one else about; there were no cars on the street with windows rolled down, no one milling about, no houses or buildings that were obviously wafting out sound. The music wasn’t window-rattling loud, but it was loud enough to break my concentration, to keep my mind off of what I was reading. And it was mariachi music, a type that I really don’t care for, with its unwavering beat and voices pitched at what, to me, was an annoying level, like a dentist’s drill, relentless and unchanging. I was not happy.
“It will only last a little while,” I told myself, for this was often true. Someone drives up and sits outside the apartment building for a while, with music blasting away, but before long they drive away or turn the car off and go inside. But there was no car. Just the music. One song, two, three. Minutes ticked by and still the music tore the silence. Every time I song ended I wished it to be the last one, but another one would start, with the same beat, the same pitch, the same sound. I could feel my temper rising. I knew if I went inside I could turn on my own music and within the confines of my house, I could drown out this other music. But I didn’t want to. I stubbornly wanted to sit on my porch and read my paper.
As the minutes ticked by and the music continued, I got myself pretty worked up. “They have every right,” I told myself. “Your desire to sit in silence on your porch does not carry more weight than their desire to listen to their music,” I insisted. But it didn’t help. I couldn’t concentrate. The words were just black scratches on the newsprint. I was building up to a fine tizzy.
But then, a different thought came to me. Would I be as bothered if it was a harpsichord concerto wafting in the morning air? If it was a Telemann quartet or Bach cantata or a Mozart sonata? Or even Gaelic Storm or Cloud Cult or Mumford and Sons? Of course not. That would be welcome. So, I realized, it was not the music that actually bothered me, it was the type of music that I couldn’t handle.
“Well, then, what if you DID like the music?”
“But I don’t!”
“But – what if you did?”
I thought about that. What I did like mariachi music? What if I found it wonderful, the beat irresistible, the rhythm divine? Then it wouldn’t be a problem, would it?
“So,” I thought, “Tell yourself that you like mariachi music.”
“But I don’t!”
“Tell yourself you do. Say to yourself, ‘I do like mariachi music! In fact, I LOVE mariachi music! It’s so nice to have mariachi music serenading me on this fine summer morning.’ Go ahead – try it.”
So I did. I actually said those words in my head. And that’s when an amazing thing happened. Even though I still knew that I did not like mariachi music, I told myself I did – not to trick myself into believing it, but simply to give those words the power to alleviate the irritation that had built up inside of me. To let the words be the buffer between what I wanted, and what I had.
And you know what? It worked! Suddenly, when I had let the words come between me and my conflict, the conflict receded. I no longer felt the grip of the beat control me. I started tapping my feet to the rhythm, not because I liked the music any better, but because it was there and I could respond to it instead of rail against it. I started to read the newspaper again, and the sound retreated as the words on the newsprint came into focus, and the stories began to unfold from the page once more. The music receded into the background. And it turned out to be a very nice morning indeed.
Words. They have power, even if we know without a doubt that that’s all they are – words. Sometimes, it’s not even a question of the “truth” of the words, it’s a question of need, of usefulness. Words have the power, not always to make something happen, but to let it be. Sometimes, like on a beautiful summer morning on a porch in the heart of the city, they simply need to exist, so we can exist in a more harmonious equilibrium. And perhaps, that is a simple yet heady testament to the true power of words.