The power of words

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They can propel us forward or stop us in our tracks. They can shift our mood, seduce a potential mate or deflate an ego. Words can reshape our entire world. The removal of the word ‘human’ from the category of ‘nature’ has damaged our relationship with all those organisms that we share the earth with. This is further impacted by our inability to understand non-human methods of expression. Would we hunt, imprison and harvest non-human animals so quickly if they could plead their cases in a language we could comprehend? Words are seriously powerful Ju-Ju.

Some of us realise and utilise this power. We pick our words with care, and then use them as creatively as possible. Others seem to believe there is a tax per sentence, a metaphysical cost to each conversation. Even this difference in attitudes towards words is important. A friend recently explained to me that she believes that differing language capabilities might well have impacted on her relationship with her brother, and I know my own relationships are the strongest with the people I can chat to for hours.

Even knowing all this though, I sometimes fail to give words the respect they deserve. Occasionally I’ll drop a sentence with little thought or consideration, and then redden as I watch disappointment well up in someone’s eyes. I once shared a few reunion drinks with an old friend at a dark den of wine-consumption. As we gathered our coats one of our fellow wine tasters told us what a great couple we made. We were both quick to point out that we were just friends, but as we left my words failed me. They didn’t disappear altogether, if only. Instead I managed to use them to undo us. I took her arm, chuckled again and said ‘we could be a hilarious couple’. That sentence was the end of ten years of singing David Grey at the top of our lungs, sharing post-relationship-breakup insights into love, and showing Wellington how not to dance. I’m not sure whether I’m more upset at the poor choice of words, or my once-friend’s reaction to them. But wherever the fault lies (and no doubt it’s somewhere between the two of us) I miss our shared guffaws and occasional tears, and I realise more than ever the power of a sentence to destroy something beautiful.

My words aren’t just important for their ability to communicate information to others though. They also have an effect on the way I see my life, and on the decisions I make for myself. The way I feel about things is revealed in the way I talk about them. If I’m unhappy with a person then the language I use to describe them reflects that. What I’ve also found though is that the reverse of this is also true: The way I talk about things affects the way I feel about them. If I continually refer to myself as a fat and incapable then I reduce the likelihood of my getting up early to go for a bike ride. If I put myself down when someone gives me a compliment, then that compliment is undone, and I may also hurt the person who granted me their uplifting thoughts. The words I use can act as a step up into somewhere brighter, or a step down into somewhere darker.

The words I receive are just as important the ones I give. There are so many sources, from romance novels to WikiLeaks, and each time I pay them attention they have the potential to alter the way I see the world. So I need to be selective in where I draw my information from, and to maintain a degree of skepticism. Over the years I’ve found that  it’s important to supplement this library of influences with something far more evocative, far more intimate and thought-provoking. Conversation.

Languages develop in order to exchange information, and it’s this through this trafficking of words that I most readily grow new ideas and transform old ones. I have never learnt as much from university texts, Hemingway’s ‘Old Man of the Sea’, or the Quran, as I have from long talks with fascinating people. I learnt of the ability of a death to transcend even the most carefully prepared defences from an oncological nurse from Tasmania. I had to confront my ideas about gun control in the United States after talking with the people who had lived through violent confrontations and fought back. And I learnt of the ongoing effects of the holocaust as I journeyed to a bunk room in Auschwitz with an Australian girl whose grandfather had survived three years within. She translated as we followed a Jewish school group through the eerie grey work camp, shuddering at the rooms filled with ghost children’s shoes. I could entwine my reactions with hers, and I both grew and shrank a little over that soul disrupting couple of hours. Words. Are. Powerful.

As a writer I aim to put my words in front of as many people as I can. I aim to entertain, inspire and occasionally confront. I understand that there is a degree of responsibility within this, but at least I can edit my responses before they’re published. It’s the words I swap with people every day that I need to ensure that I’m mindful of. If I take care to communicate in ways that lift both me and those I spend time with then I should never have to lose a friendship over a misunderstanding again.

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Happiness

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Over the past week I’m the happiest I remember ever being, but why is that? I feel a need to delve deeper into my state to understand its source, to determine what things lie behind it, as maybe then I can perpetuate it. I’m not looking for a universal answer, I have no doubt we all vary in the catalysts for our joy. I’ll be happy enough (haha) if I can develop a personal answer. And in the hunt, maybe others will find something useful too.

After recently spending a short time living at the base of the Rocky Mountains and then in the Scottish Highlands, I’ve come to better understand how much my surroundings affect my mental state. When I spend time living in busy spaces, be it the centre of Edinburgh or the edge of Wellington, I find I can jitter under the influence of too many distractions. My thoughts reflect the rapid changes in my environment and while I am thrilled to be able to access so many different experiences, I struggle to prioritise the important things. I get distracted by the process of just living. As a result I frequently feel an urge to climb aboard a train to Shannon, or bike down to Leith, or catch a boat to Marlborough. And when I do this, when I disembark into birdsong, ocean breezes and woodland scents I can’t smother my grin. I’m bounded by stretched out horizons sculpted by natural forces rather than urban planners. My thoughts slow to match the pace of my new surrounds, the slow steady shift of the seasons, the tides, the weather. And amongst the trees, hills and sand dunes happiness finds its way into me a little more quickly. Or maybe it’s just that there is less to distract me from its persistent presence?

One of the great by-products of time spent surrounded by Scottish Lochs, Kapiti Coast estuaries and Colorado foothills is that these immersive and ever-changing environments inspires physicality. I want to bike through them, hike amongst them, climb them, jump into waterholes from them. They encourage natural paths to fitness, and when I’m fit and active two things happen. Firstly I no longer have to think about how unfit and inactive I’m becoming, and that’s such a hideous, ugly psychological burden. Secondly I want to share my love of these spaces with friends and family. So rock climbing, swimming and water fights replace pub haunting as my communal activities of choice. And I honestly believe that the relationships developed through positive activities can be stronger and deeper than those developed through sharing shouted conversations in nightclubs. Of course there’s little better than sharing a glass of wine or cider on a beach after a hard day in the outdoors…

So there’s a degree of physicality involved in my ongoing happiness. But these natural spaces also tend to enhance my creativity and I need to create to feel whole. I need to write long letters, draw intricate sketches and build cairns from stones harvested along river banks. It’s this making, crafting, doing, that is one of my best indicators for how comfortable I am. When I’m happy my creative capabilities become second nature, they flow more cleanly from me. So I guess in some ways they’re a symptom of my happiness as much as a cause of it. But sitting making pottery in the woods isn’t enough, not without anyone to share the results with. I love people too much.

My relationships with other people might well transcend all else as the primary keys to my positivity. Over recent years I’ve realised that I don’t need to entertain people in order to hold their attention, I just need to be myself. I’ve always enjoyed listening to people, trying to understand the things that they believe about the world. Taking up writing has intensified my interest, and I love talking with new friends and old, and engaging with them. I’ve been through enough ups and downs in my life to be finally able to offer long, deep, meandering conversations that can be of benefit to both those I talk to, and to myself. It can be scary at times, letting people see the real me. But it also seems to enable my friends to talk more honestly about themselves, and these growing relationships make me happier than anything else.

I’ve also learnt the value of being a positive person, on being a beneficial influence on the people whose company you enjoy. This has left me very grateful to the people I’ve learnt this from, and I’ve found that expression of this gratitude is another key to a blissful state. If I take the time to talk honestly to people about how much I appreciate them, or what they’ve done, we both get to feel good about it. At times that’s difficult in a low-key humble-is-best country like New Zealand, people aren’t always comfortable with having their little kindnesses praised. But it’s one of those things that takes just a little effort, and rewards both parties, despite any potential blushing and mumbling. I am helped along every day by people, and I want to always remember to acknowledge this, and to learn from their generosity of spirit.

As I’ve been writing this article I’ve realised that the simple process of learning new things is one more thing that brings me joy. I gain something from learning new things. The act of discovery, of learning new skills or simply improving my knowledge motivates me. I love researching the history of wolf hunting in Russia, or learning how to craft straw bales, or how to whisky is made. Or delving into what I need in order to be happy.

It seems then that all the conditions for living a pretty sweet life are within my control. They’re all reassuringly positive, I don’t get off on lighting fires…actually, maybe just a little. But good fires. But it’s not the denigration of others that makes me smile, it’s not the harvesting of power, nor the accumulation of wealth. I simply need to immerse myself in my environment, in my creativity, and in my relationships with my friends. It is very heartening to realise that happiness might well be a lifestyle, rather than a destination or a goal.