Some relationships are pernicious. Steadily, and often slowly, they wear you down like a yolk upon your shoulders. For a while you endure, but eventually the burden brings you to your knees.
Other relationships can be innocuous, even mutually beneficial. While titanic like acts of kindness and love certainly add value to a relationship, I’ve noticed that it’s the small, subtle deeds that tend to stick and make the most impact. It’s something like how a single stroke of mustard can change your experience with the sandwich – a bijou detail that carries weight.
Steve Shaw was the first editor I had worked with as a rookie writer. He was the one who gave me a shot even though I had no track record. After some time working together and proving to him that I was serious about becoming a writer, he said something to me that I’ll never forget:
“You have the chops to be a great writer. You’re going to have a long career if you stick with it.”
This was the single stroke of mustard for me. His two sentences bespoke the potential he saw in me while acknowledging endurance was required to make it happen. The gravitas of his delivery made it feel genuine.
In that moment and until this day, reminding myself of his words are inspiring and hopeful. And it wrestles me into think about how I’m using my own words with other people. Am I building people up or am I tearing them down with what I say?
The story of the two frogs helps me answer this question.
One day, a group of frogs were trekking through the woods. Then, two of them fell into a deep mud trench. The rest of the group hurried around the mud trench to see if they could help rescue their friends. But once they looked down into the trench, they realized it was far too deep and there was nothing they could do.
They shouted to their friends at the bottom of the trench, “You’ll never get out! It’s too muddy and you can’t lock a grip on the sides to climb to the top. There’s nothing you can do. Sorry guys.”
At first, the two frogs ignored the comments from the colleagues – they furiously jumped and clawed against the sides to inch their way out. Meanwhile, the friends at the top of the trench continued to yell at them to stop and that there was no chance of getting out.
Due to exhaustion, one frog threw in the towel, sank to the bottom and let himself decease. The other frog, with unrelenting endurance keeps jumping and clawing in an attempt to get out of the mud trench. His friends keep shouting at him to stop and that his efforts were useless.
Finally, the frog that didn’t give up latched onto a small branch wedged into the side of the mud trench. It gave him enough leverage and height to be able to jump up to the top and crawl out.
When he got to the top, one of the other frogs who knew sign language asked him, “Why did you continue jumping and crawling when all of us were shouting at you to give up? Didn’t you hear us?”
The frog replied back to his friend in sign language that he was deaf. He thought all of his friends were encouraging him to keep fighting the whole time.
The point is this: Words posses a potency that can either build someone up or tear them down.
Since a large part of our communication is behind our keyboards and phones these days, it’s easy to forget that there is a human on the other side of what we say.
It’s become so casual that incendiary language feels like putting a few quarters into the arcade game – cheap and almost riskless. We think knee-jerk remarks pregnant with hate don’t stick.
All I’m suggesting is that we be a little more mindful of what we say to each other, because words matter.
And to be sure, the benefit is not exclusively reaped by the recipient of what we say. The one speaking mindfully also garners profit.
There’s a proverb that I love that supports this and it says, “He who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.”
Lets be refreshing with our words – it’s mutually beneficial.