Words are my life. When I’m not writing words, I’m thinking about words. When I’m not thinking about words, I’m talking about them. It’s a hazard of being an author.
This past week, however, I was once again reminded of the power of words. From time to time something will come to my attention that makes me pause and think, “Huh. I wonder if that person (or those people) realize they’re sending out a different message than they meant…” Usually it’s something said in an interview or a conversation, but sometimes my pondering is triggered by memes on Facebook. You know, those pictures with words on them that everyone loves to share? Yeah, sometimes I wish whoever created them and shared them would have tried to look at them from another perspective.
One popular theme to the memes I see is that the past doesn’t really matter and we should focus only on the future. Let the past remain in the past and life will be great. I admit the message does have a feel-good quality to it, but it also has a subtext that most people may not even realize is there. The subtext is that if you’re struggling and miserable, it’s all your fault because you won’t quit focusing on the past. If you would just choose to let go of past events, your life would instantly improve.
That’s not the way life works, people. If we ignore the past we will never learn from our mistakes. The past can offer great guidance for future choices and help us learn what and who to trust. If we turn our back on those lessons, we’re just being foolish.
The memes I see aren’t only about letting go of the past, however. Another recurring theme shows a double or triple amputee or maybe a child fighting a deadly disease, and says something about how the person in the photo is accomplishing (insert great thing here) despite the huge challenges they face because of the amputation or disease or whatever. That part is inspirational, but then the meme goes on to say that if this person can do whatever awesome thing, you have no right to complain.
I’m sorry if it makes you uncomfortable, but everyone has a right to complain. It’s part of having free speech and being human. I agree that people should quit complaining online about stupid stuff every five minutes. “Oh, it’s raining when I wanted it to be sunny! The dog’s snoring is so loud I can’t hear the TV!” and so on. Those kinds of things are better left unsaid a lot of times, but people have a right to say whatever they want regardless of how annoying others find it.
My problem with the meme is that it implies that unless you’re overcoming the most difficult physical obstacle you can imagine and doing great things in spite of it, you don’t have a right to complain about anything at all. That invalidates the legitimate struggles of the majority of people on the planet, and that’s not okay. Just because Person A’s struggles aren’t as glamorous or mind-boggling as those of the person in the meme, it doesn’t make Person A’s struggles any less valid or difficult.
Person A may not be able to get support anywhere but an online forum like Facebook. They may desperately need to talk about their problems in the hope that someone is listening and will understand or at least offer a bit of compassion. Telling them their struggles are invalid because they have all their limbs and aren’t suffering from a deadly disease could do great harm. Not to be overly dramatic, but if Person A struggles with depression, hearing that what they’re going through doesn’t count as a real struggle could cause them to become completely hopeless or possibly suicidal. Nobody wants that to happen, least of all the person who shared the meme in the first place.
Words are powerful things. What seems like a harmless statement to one person may be a harmful statement to another. What inspires one person may discourage another. We can’t make everyone happy. Trying will either drive you crazy or paralyze you with worry. What we can do, however, is take more than a cursory glance at the words we’re thinking about sharing with others. What may seem like a good thing to share on the surface may say something completely different if you look a little deeper.
Be thoughtful with words, whether you’re speaking them or sharing them online. As my mom always said, think before you speak. Ask yourself whether what you want to say or share will build people up or tear them down. Will it help someone or hurt them? If you make it your goal to be respectful of others, including those with a different viewpoint, the thoughts and ideas you share will be more powerful.