By Paul Martin
As someone in the business of giving words of life, I linger over my choice of words. Maybe you’re like me and always push yourself to find the best word for every situation. Or you might also share my need to review conversations looking for what words I should have used. If you’re neither of those people, let me explain why words make so much of a difference.
I grew up in the south, a typical boy who loved being in the woods and hanging out with friends. Like many of my friends I struggled at times with the desire to be manly. Back then, the image of manhood came to me from pictures on paper towels via the Brawny brand and courtesy of a certain pack of cigarettes that leveraged a rugged man to sell tobacco. Looking back, it was silly; but then, it was all I had.
As a teenager, I tended toward the thinner side of weight. I heard all kinds of discouraging words from chicken legs to bird chest (why the comparison with birds?!) to toothpick and pencil neck. I heard lots of others, but they don’t bear repeating. Because of those words playing on my ill-formed self-image, I felt inadequate. I didn’t measure up to the manliness I thought essential for life.
This is probably an insider secret that might get my man card revoked, but not very many men likes being called skinny. It just sounds weak. Slender is better. Even lean sounds like you might be talking about meat. See? Words are important.
Like many men, as I grew up, my ability to put on extra weight became easier. What seemed impossible from over eating in my teens became inevitable in my twenties and a fight against momentum in my thirties. It wasn’t until I found myself taking painkillers everyday that I made a connection between my physique and my life. My career in youth ministry lent itself to poor eating and constant snacking. Sugar was a great reward for finishing a project and I finished plenty on most days. Through the prompting of my wife, I decided to start eating better.
It didn’t start out as having anything to do with the way I looked. I just wanted to feel better and some nutritional changes helped. As an unintended consequence, my weight and appearance started to change. I wouldn’t say that I’m ripped or even particularly athletic looking. I just looked healthier.
Here’s where I realized something big though. I friend visited one night who I hadn’t seen in a year or so. When we met at a nice restaurant for dinner, he glanced at me and commented, “Hey, look at you! You look…svelte.” It was the perfect word. It redeemed the years of being called skinny or worse. I felt great about my choices to eat well. We then went inside and enjoyed a meal that was filled with those kinds of life-giving words (and a really awesome chocolate brownie dessert).
Words make the difference. They take broken pieces of us and mend them together in strong bonds. They create friendships that change lives. Inevitably, in the hardest times in life, our words turn our struggles into our celebrations. So if you’re a word person (as all youth workers should be), be encouraged. You’re making a difference. If you’re not, join us. Be in the ranks of people who turn mourning into praise by using words.