The Power of Words

There are so many individual events to catch up on my blog (for instance my sister’s entire visit), but I feel it’s time for a post that’s not simply a recap on my every day world. So here goes nothing…or something.

I have recently been pondering the power of words. They can carry so much weight and yet they flow off the tongue with such ease that their strength is often forgotten. Words can seamlessly bring people together, clear the murky waters of misunderstandings, and create a connection in people with the most diverse backgrounds imaginable. They are amazing. These simple words that I’m typing right now are conveying thoughts and emotions that would otherwise remain trapped in my head. Spoken language is incredible.

Since being in Australia I’ve had countless moments where I am simply in awe of language.  Words can vary so dramatically language to language, country to country and even just person to person. A word spoken by one person can be entirely flipped in pronunciation, emphasis and even meaning when spoken by someone else. It amazes me how how someone from France or Italy can take even the most bland English words and turn them into something poetic, almost lyrical. There’s a flare to the words that I just don’t seem to have with my own language. Maybe it’s because I feel like I’ve worn mine out. I have spoken the same words (probably repeating the same few thousand fairly regularly) for 25ish years. Maybe that’s why a new language is so exhilarating–new words to describe the same experiences. But it goes beyond that even, because oftentimes through another language we discover new ways to describe things we never had a word for.

I’m not quite there yet with my second language. I’m still simply trying to learn words to describe my every day habits (yes, I’m finally past the “teach me the dirty words” stage of learning French—though, I am very fluent in several such phrases). My friends that have mastered at least two languages, however, get to reap the benefits of a nearly infinite volcabularly. They can just switch back and forth, French to English, to find the absolute BEST pieces of each to describe life. They call it Franglish and fight against it, but I call it impressive and dare I say, superpower-ish. Fight it all you want, but I would LOVE to have an entirely new volcabularly at my disposal. I have always loved words, and consistently try to challenge myself to use those “SAT” words I studied so much in high school, but that’s me just having some fun. Oh how I wish I paid more attention in my French classes.

But, I digress. The point is that language is incredibly powerful and can literally make or break connections. For instance, if my international friends here had never bothered to learn English, there’s just no way we’d be able to communicate effectively enough to forge a deep meaningful friendship. I mean, don’t get me wrong, our communication isn’t perfect. Even now, we have many nights where we spend hours playing charades with each other, only it’s not a game, it’s reading a recipe, and it’s not just gestures, it’s playing with words and the emPHAsis until we have the ah-ha moment of comprehension. But really, these moments just offer some comedic relief to relationships already built on so much more. I won’t say all of human interaction and meaningful connections hinges on spoken word, but I will say the ability to speak and share thoughts and emotions can create a truly powerful connection between individuals.

As with most things in life however, this power presents itself as a double-edge sword. Along with the ability to connect, build and bond comes the ability to tear down, separate and destroy. It is so easy to think a thought, say a word, and be forever free of it. But words aren’t words by just being spoken. They gain meaning, power and strength by being heard. And the perspective and context in which they are heard can dramatically influence their power. Words spoken in haste do not always disappear so hastily from the listener’s ears .Words can leave someone quickly in anger, but stay with another, resurfacing and replaying for years to come. An earnest jest could tug at the deepest insecurities of a friend. You truly never know the lasting effect your words could have on someone, so all you can do is assume the best.

Assume everyone has the best memory. Assume your words will forever be stamped in the story of their lives. Assume your words are so influential and powerful that they could literally change the world. Because you know what, for better or for worse…They can.

Choose carefully

 

 

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Nous Restons Unis (United We Stand)

There I was standing in solidarity amongst my French friends as we gathered together to mourn a tragedy. For me, it was an attack on Paris and on humanity, but for them it had the added element of being an attack on home. We all felt a sense of loss, but the drive, the history and the emotion behind it varied. No one’s emotions are ever less than another’s, but they are, by nature, inherently different. I was standing in the crowd. It was an almost out of body experience. I was part of the moment but a bystander as well. I glanced around. Thousands had gathered. A sea of voices surrounded me, but they were speaking a language I only know pieces of. Sometimes when I spend time with my French friends, I jokingly remind them to speak in english (side note-very rarely is this necessary…they are all incredibly thoughtful in this way, always opting for their second language so I can speak my first). This day, however, was not a day for them to make adjustments for me. It was a day for me to just be. I could pick up words here and there, but only a few. Someone sang a beautiful rendition of the French national anthem. People sang with her.I didn’t know the tune or the words. But somehow that was ok. I was just being. Being a part of a moment that was far bigger than any individual. Bigger than any country. It was a moment where the world was coming together, I thought. Coming together in response to an attack that was meant to tear us apart.

A year ago I think that moment would have been very different for me. A year ago I did not personally know anyone from France. Today I do. I know amazing, incredible women who, like me, have left their homes on a grand adventure to Australia. What brought us to Australia may be different, and we each have unique personalities, histories and stories, but it is these very differences, and the celebration of them that brings such a richness to every shared moment between us. Today I know people from France. I have friends who spent the day contacting everyone they could to see if their friends and family had survived. I can’t even begin to imagine what that felt like.

When I found out about the attacks, I suddenly felt homesick. Overwhelmingly homesick. I just wanted to be back with my family. Then came a pang of guilt. I’m wishing to return home to the safety of my country and family and yet I think about how my friends here must feel. Their home is not a place of safety at the moment. A rush of emotion takes me back to the feeling I had after 9/11. You can never truly compare two tragedies. They were entirely different. But then again, in their most basic sense, they are entirely the same in that they both compromised peoples’ sense of security. There was an immediate loss of safety following 9/11. That day, no American felt truly safe. We fought off fear, we stayed strong, and we persevered, but in that moment, home was not safe. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but the feeling after November 13th is similar to me. The world was attacked, humanity was attacked, and for the French specifically, their home was attacked. Fear will be fought off, the people will stay strong, and they will persevere, but this day will never be forgotten- nor should it be.

While I say the moment would be different had I not known anyone from the country, I don’t think it would be any less impactful. I don’t think you have to be directly affected to experience the devastation of an event of this magnitude. This attack was coordinated. It was meticulously planned and expertly carried out. It was disastrous. And, sadly, it is not unique. Terrorism and terrorist attacks seem to be more and more commonplace. This attack was in Paris. There was another in Beirut. The attacks could be anywhere. It becomes less and less about the where, what and how and more about the who and why. No, not even who to blame…who are they attacking? And why?

Say what you will about the president of the United States, but this quote rang true to me:

“This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.”

–Barack Obama

They aren’t just attacking France or Beirut, they are attacking the the values people hold most dear. The bombs and gunfire struck Paris, but the aftershock has hit the entire world. And the response from the world in the wake o this travesty was overwhelming. Around the globe, landmarks, buildings, media, and Facebook profiles lit up in support of France. In support of the people. In support of peace.

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So on Monday, November 16th, Melbourne organized a peaceful gathering for the French community and supporters. Federation square was set up, guards were in place (just in case) and the French community (as well as official representatives) came together to mourn for the lives lost, not just in France, but around the world. One by one speakers shared their thoughts on the tragedy. Some highlighted the loss of life, others detailed the events, but the all-encompassing message of the night was clear: We will not live our lives in fear. We are one world united.

 

After the speakers, John Lennon’s song “Imagine” played…and for a few minutes, we all just listened. For me, the lyrics rang truer than any other time I’ve heard them.

“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one”

As the official part of the program ended, one of the most poignant moments of the night began. The community joined hands forming a circle and slowly, one by one, people walked to the center and laid down tokens, flowers, candles, shirts and photos in remembrance of the lives lost.

image3Aside from the gentle music in the background, the only sound in the entirety of Federation Square (a city center spot normally abuzz with daily happenings) was the soft clapping as people laid down their offerings. For a moment, time stood still. It was one of the most moving experiences I have ever been a part of.

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By the reactions of those walking through the circle, you knew who had lost a loved one. There was one man in particular who broke down completely. I don’t know his story (he was interviewed so maybe at some point it will be released) but in that moment, the details of his story didn’t matter. We all knew. We all felt it. And it was heart breaking.

The emotional crescendo of the evening was when a man walked into the center of the circle and lifted high a shirt with #notafraid written on it. I can’t remember if the symbol above the words was the Eiffel tower or the French flag, but in that moment the words spoke louder than any image. The crowd erupted in cheers. It was the loudest moment of the night, and a beautiful end to the evening.

Overall, to me, it was an experience that was respectful to the community, mournful of the loss felt by all, and yet it was permeated by this sense of strength and unity. In that moment, we were one people. Race, religion and country were all secondary to the one thing we all share: a sense of humanity.

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** Disclaimer– The views expressed in this post are mine and mine alone. I don’t pretend to know or explain how this event impacts anyone but myself. All pictures were shared with permission from my lovely French friends.**