During the pandemic, Nancy and I watched our fair share of television. Not gonna lie – when shelter in place first started, we sank low and watched The Tiger King. Since then, we have wound our way through British and Australian crime dramas, all of Schitt’s Creek, and everything from The Queen’s Gambit to Sex Education. Currently, we are watching a creepy miniseries called The Undoing with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant. Have you ever noticed that on shows like these it is often what is not said that shapes the plot? Confessions of love that never get uttered. Omissions when questioned by the police. Secrets that children keep from their parents.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of words lately. The way we talk to others. The way we talk to ourselves. The bridges words build when used one way versus the bombs they explode when used another.
“A word after a word after a word is power.”Margaret Atwood.
Mostly, though, I have been thinking about self-expression. Often our inner lives are much richer and more nuanced than we reveal to others. Sometimes we remain quiet because we fear our words will come out wrong or won’t do justice to the ideas in our head. Sometimes we don’t speak up because we haven’t summoned the courage necessary, like to address a wrong or admit a mistake. We are taught that some subjects are taboo, and some seem just too painful to talk about. As a result, we often keep the things to ourselves that we most need to share.
As a teacher, helping my students cultivate their voice is a huge part of what drives me. When students speak and write in a way that reflects their identity– in a way that gets to the heart of who they are and what they believe– they are also saying “I matter; my ideas and experience matter.” With voice comes power — power to shape one’s own life, to expect and demand more, and to influence others and generate empathy and connection.
This summer, I’ve been carrying a notebook with me all the time. Each day, I spend time writing in it. There’s no particular recipe or format for my writing. Sometimes I list things I am grateful for. Sometimes I write as many questions as I can find rumbling around in my head. Sometimes I respond to a writing prompt for ten minutes. The only hard and fast rule is that I must write every day. My hope is that self-expression is a skill like juggling a soccer ball. The more I practice getting my words out, putting on paper what would otherwise remain in my head, the better I will become at it.
Sometimes I struggle to capture exactly what I am thinking, as if the words I need do not exist. Each year new words emerge that describe and reflect our times. From Merriam-Webster: “Language is a measure of culture, but also, in many ways, language can be a measure of time. The words we use—if they are new or relatively new—are the words we need to express and explain our world.”
Here’s a sampling of new words for 2021.
Performative: made or done for show (as to bolster one’s own image or make a positive impression on others)
Pod and Bubble: a usually small group of people (such as family members, friends, coworkers, or classmates) who regularly interact closely with one another but with few or no others in order to minimize exposure and reduce the transmission of infection during an outbreak of a contagious disease.
Second Gentleman: the husband or male partner of a vice president or second in command of a country or jurisdiction
It’s easy to place these words in our current day, and it’s clear why they exist. But they are not the words I need. Where are the words that describe things I love or aspire to or dream about? What about complex emotions? Where’s the whimsy and joy?
For example, what is the word for “a sense of belonging that inspires the very best in yourself?” Or “the heavy peaceful feeling you get when you are deeply tired and falling off to sleep”? Or “love for your pet that warms you up from the inside out”?
The good news is that some of the words we need can be found in languages from other cultures. Tim Lomas, a professor of positive psychology at the University of London, has been compiling words from cultures across the globe that are untranslatable into English and that might allow us to better understand and express ourselves. Here is a sampling:
Mbuki-mvuki: In Bantu, the irresistible urge to shuck off your clothes as you dance.
Dadirri: In an Australian aboriginal language, a deep, spiritual act of reflective and respectful listening.
Wabi-Sabi: In Japanese, a way of living that focuses on finding beauty in the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycle of growth and decay.
Lomas suggests that the words we use don’t just reflect us; they shape us: “Words can expand our horizons and transform our lives. Words have the potential to help us better understand and articulate our experiences, and can even reveal new phenomena which had previously been veiled to us.”
We need good words in our lives like we need good friends. What if we surrounded ourselves with the words we need? Words that help us describe what we are thinking and feeling. Words that signal opportunity and transcendence and creativity. Words that describe possibility so vividly that we can see it and smell it. Words that lead us away from “I can’t” and towards “how can I?” and “what would it take to…?”
What words do you need?