Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Unseen Impacts

By Susan Esther Barnes

I’m beginning to suspect few of us, myself included, has any idea the impact our words and actions have on others. The Torah tries to give us a hint about the power of words. In the very first chapter, God creates the world by using words, as in the famous, “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”

It’s not uncommon for me to think about words and their impact. I try to write things in way that will, as accurately as I can, communicate how I see things as well as how I feel about them. I feel best about my writing when I feel it packs a punch, leaving the reader with something to think about after they have finished reading.

A couple of weeks ago a friend was struggling because she felt she was failing to get others to see the importance of something very dear to her. She said she felt she wasn’t communicating to others about it in a powerful enough way, and she was contemplating using more powerful language, but she didn’t want to be hurtful. I told her it’s possible to use words powerfully without being hurtful.

Often it seems being powerful and hurtful is much easier than being powerful and constructive. And yet, there are times when we say or do powerfully constructive things without even realizing it. For example, two and a half years ago, a woman introduced me as, “My friend Susan.” She said it as if it were no big deal, and to her it probably wasn’t one. She had no way to know it was the first time I’d heard those words in 20 years, so she had no idea how powerful those words were to me.

Earlier this year a woman said to me, “I value your friendship.” I thought, “You value my friendship? Don’t you mean it the other way around?” I had been so wrapped up in how cool it was to have a bunch of friends around me, it hadn’t occurred to me it might work both ways. She didn’t know what a revelation it was for me to consider someone might view my friendship as a valuable thing to have.

Yesterday, I received an email from someone who said, “Thanks for being a good friend.” It made me feel great, but I was surprised. Sure, I think of him as a friend, but I have no idea why he thinks of me as a good friend. We don’t have dinner together; we don’t go to the movies or other outings together. I don’t even know when his birthday is. Aren’t those things all part of being a good friend? Obviously, I must have said or done something in the past that makes him feel this way about me. And clearly, at the time I had no idea the impact I had on him, just as he has no idea the impact his words, “Thank you for being a good friend” had on me.

Just before we say the Amidah, the central prayer of each prayer service, we say, “Adonai, open my lips so my mouth may declare your glory.” Rabbi Noa says we start with this prayer because we want the prayers that follow to come out right. Often, when I say those words I’m not thinking about the prayers coming up. Instead, I’m asking God to help me, throughout the week, to say and write things which will have a positive impact on others. Sometimes I know I’ve succeeded. Sometimes I think I’ve succeeded when I haven’t. And sometimes, I’m discovering, I succeed without even knowing it.

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