Speaking Healing Words
Today I’m thinking about speaking healing words. It’s not a random thought. I’m thinking about it because as I write this, my wife, Suzanna, and I are sitting in the Cleveland Clinic surgery center waiting with Vicky, the wife of our friend Tony as he undergoes his second major surgery in four years. Today it’s cancer surgery. Four years ago it was a heart and double lung transplant.
We’re the same age yet–through some dark and mysterious cosmic lottery–he has been chosen to bear more health challenges than any normal person might expect in a dozen lifetimes. Yet, I’ve learned a lot about courage and will by knowing him and watching him over these past few years. He may have moments of asking, “why me?” But so far, I haven’t heard him express it. What I have heard is his calm and sincere focus on his family, his simple and undramatic professions of his faith, his courageous acceptance of what he cannot change.
He’s been in tougher spots before.
What do you say to someone who seems to be navigating his valleys better than you are just watching him? My resolve is to speak healing words.
Healing words aren’t just hopeful expressions invoked as a talisman against fearful things. They are, I believe, a substantive force of faith that absolutely can make a difference in our lives and the lives of those we care about.
Dr. James Pennebaker of the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin has published work on the effects of healing words and his work suggests that the words we choose to tell our stories make a difference in how those stories turn out. Those he studied who used positive words–even in a negative context–tended to experience more benefits than those who used negative words to describe their situations. Words like “love,” “caring,” and “happiness,” even when used in phrases like, “I don’t feel as happy or healthy as I’d like to be” tended to be used by those who ended up having fewer doctor visits than those who phrased their negative experiences in terms like”sadness” and “sickness.” He theorizes that perhaps it’s because the uses of those words express a dimension of happiness and health even if those experiences are temporarily missing from your life.
Is it enough to conclude that words can heal the body? Maybe not, but it’s perhaps enough of a clue to the potential impact of words that we should carefully consider the words we speak.
My faith background teaches the power of the word. The first chapter of the Gospel of John says “In the beginning was the word…and the word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us.” (John 1:1-14) Our words are made real (flesh) and they have the power to change lives. Kind words change the direction of a life, speaking humor filled words can move us to laughter, encouraging words can strengthen the will, loving words can heal a broken heart. But maybe there’s more than just the poetic impact of words on our emotions. It might be that words change us physically, or maybe it’s that the emotional is so inextricably tied to life and health that the emotional and spiritual sensitivity to words translates to the physical in much the same way that photosynthesis turns light into food for the living plant. Whatever the pathway, the words we choose to speak and the words we elect to listen to seem destined to be made flesh.
And so, now, in this surgery waiting room, a place where objective analytical science and all the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to intersect and hopeful loved ones anxiously wait–praying that the next words spoken to them will be ones to give them hope–it seems a good time and place to contemplate the power of words. And it’s a good time to resolve to speak the kinds of words that express love, that communicate caring and that might be part of the healing that we hope and pray will come next.