What good are words?


“The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Führer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or worldly tricks to make us feel better.
What good were the words?”

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

I just finished The Book Thief and I can’t help thinking how timely it is, how appropriate that I find it ten years post-publishing instead of as a high school student. I can’t help but parallel its setting to present day, as the United States slowly reduces the boil that’s been bubbling over for a majority of this year.

An elected president most would never have expected, yet we are all implored to offer him respect and support as he criticizes the manner in which people congratulate him on winning the presidency.

Confusion as we just “don’t know what to believe,” everything is questionable, unless it directly lines up with what we want to believe. Is the media rigged? By whom? Aren’t we the media now, too? Are we just as unreliable? Or are we entitled to our opinions as fact – if we believe it just enough, will it be, and is it, true?

I relate to Liesel Meminger, a foster child living in Nazi Germany as Hitler comes into power, in the above quote. She’s sitting in a home library in 1943 with the snowflake-remains of a book she’d just shredded surrounding her on the floor.

What good are words anyways?

If it weren’t for those damn words, we wouldn’t be fighting with relatives, friends and coworkers – or complete strangers. If it weren’t for words, how many wars, ranging from spats between neighbors to global entanglements, could be avoided?

If it weren’t for words, people wouldn’t have to be comforted and told that a threat made on their life was empty and shouldn’t be feared, or reassured that what kids say about you at school doesn’t have to define you. Or should it? Is it fact? According to him, or her, yesterday or today?

As usual, I’m looking at the big picture, which I’m often criticized for, but I naturally lean towards that.

In the traditional sense, I’m not all that cultured: I’ve never been out of the country or west of the Mississippi (though my eastern experience is better), all my closest friends are white just like me, and my permanent address has been in the same small town from the time I was about 7 months old. So when considering my “big picture,” I recognize that plenty of others have a lot more to work with, and just as many have a lot less.

What I have had, like Liesel, are books and an environment that gave me lots of little experiences to shelve into my library of The Big Picture.

And for most of 2016, I’ve been writing about a lot of these little experiences in a green military log book (so sturdy. so vintage.) given to me by an internship supervisor while she purged some file cabinets. So, I guess words are good for something like that.

There’s other things, too.

I was in a used book store recently, one I’d never visited, but was incidentally located in the city I was born in (this would be those 7 or so months not in my current town). Whether because of the physical size or because I don’t remember the last time I was in a shop of this sort, it just felt inherently good. Just as I found a book to take up to the register, a woman came in asking if the store was hiring. I thought it would be quick, but after the older woman behind the counter explained that they weren’t, the visitor asked if they knew of anywhere else that might be hiring; her voice cracked as she continued on and said she was homeless, then quickly thanked them and turned around to leave.

Whether real or imagined, I felt rolling waves of shame, disappointment and then self-criticism at too-high hopes, coupled with an overwhelming urge to just go and hug this lady. To encourage her, find a resource for her or guide her in the right direction, something.

When she was almost to the door, the older woman called out to her, took some tissues and then walked her back. More words. Maybe they could help her. The shop visitor said she was a military veteran, and that she just wanted to get her life back together. It felt so trivial to be waiting to buy my silly book, and prying to listen in on this conversation about someone who’s basic needs aren’t being met. From the remaining snippets I gathered, it turned out that the older man also behind the counter owned the book store and was involved in the social assistance agency next door. It sounded as though proceeds from the shop went towards the agency and helping people find work.

What were the odds? Some information was given to the woman, plans were discussed, and seeing as it was already after-hours, she promised to go to the assistance agency the next day it was open. Thanking them again, she left.

Was she really homeless? Or a veteran? I can’t prove anything she said. But if it is true, timing and words and a kind man and woman and their words may be able to do a lot of good for her.

Words can do so much harm, cause so much confusion, but also so much love, laughter and knowledge and that’s where their real strength lies. That’s what I intend to draw from going forward, using the strength of words rather than their divisiveness.

What good will they do for you in the next year? How will you choose to use them?

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