Worth of words

Insubstantial as they seem, words possess tremendous power. Like stones, they enable one to either build something or to break it. The writer, Joseph Conrad, has gone so far to declare, "Give me the right word and the right accent and I will move the world." Words, it would seem, hold a secret strength. What is it?

An incident in the epic, Mahabharata, shows us the far-reaching and disastrous effects of using indiscriminate language. Yudhisthira loses Draupadi in a deadly game of dice. Duryodhana now speaks to her in a manner demeaning to womanhood. This infuriates Bhima who vows to break Duryodhana's thigh and exact revenge. He fulfills it at the very end of the war when the Kaurava army, save Duryodhana, is annihilated. Duryodhana now engages in a duel with Bhima. Both are equally matched but Bhima brings his mace down on his thigh and fells him to the ground. Though this goes against the principles of warfare, not even Krishna disapproves of the deed.

This is not to suggest that words have a potential only for evil. Words used positively create the best atmosphere for what is good and beneficial. Encouraging words have the power to inspire and elevate. The Greek orator Demosthenes, who surpassed even Cicero, came very near to giving up his true mission. When he first attempted to make a speech, the entire crowd hissed him. He had almost given up in despair when someone put new courage into him by saying he spoke like Pericles. The second time too the crowd rejected him. But one of the successful actors of the day put new heart into him. These two men succeeded in enthusing and turning Demosthenes into what he really was - a great orator.

Words can also bring people together and help them build bridges instead of walls. Once, two men who had had a bitter quarrel, came to Abraham Lincoln for help. He listened to them and put forward an unusual suggestion. He proposed that they sit down in his office and discuss the issue without acrimony. Meanwhile, Lincoln would go out for lunch, leaving the door locked, to avoid all interruption. The two men finding themselves shut up together laughed and then began talking. By the time Lincoln returned, they had arrived at an amicable settlement.

It is worthwhile to keep in mind that words occupy the space between thought and action. It is when we throw them about without stopping to consider their import that we cause hurt to others. Unlike physical wounds, emotional ones are long lasting. A wound in the body will heal in a matter of some days; but harsh words fester for years and the pain can last a lifetime. As psychiatrists point out, an electric stimulus can revive unkind remarks lying deep down in the recesses of memory. Using kind words, sometimes even in the teeth of provocation, makes us kinder people. Its rewards are freedom from worries, peace of mind and happiness.

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