The Power of Words
I have vivid memories of encounters with people whose voices or words have moved me over the years. One which springs to mind happened during a visit to the Guilin region of China, a beautiful land of craggy mountains, mists and rivers.
Walking along, we met two young girls, no older than 15 or 16, selling medicinal herbs near a river. They carried a large basket filled with herbs, inviting passersby to buy their goods with vibrant voices.
“Ni hao!” [Hello] I called to them. “Ni hao!” They smiled back: “We offer every kind of medicine: choose the one you want.”
I smiled at their high spirits and asked, “Do you have anything to make me smarter?” They seemed taken aback, but only for an instant. “I’m sorry,” one of them replied in a clear, firm voice, “We just sold out of that one.”
Our group burst into laughter at this witty reply, and we felt as warm inside as if a gentle spring breeze had touched us. As a Chinese saying puts it, “Even a single word uttered out of goodness can warm the heart in the bitterest winter.”
I fondly recall that my wife and I ended up buying some herbs as souvenirs, and I sometimes wonder how the girls and their families are doing.
I believe that sincere one-to-one conversation can soften and melt even hearts that are completely frozen. By talking with someone face-to-face, you can actually change that person’s life and your own.
Today we live in the midst of a flood of soulless information. And the more we rely on one-way communication, like radio or TV, or static and unmoving words in print, the more I feel the need to stress the value of the sound of the human voice: The simple but precious interaction of voice and voice, person and person; the exchange of life with life.
In a face-to-face conversation, the listener can ask questions or disagree, and this in turn may make the speaker rethink his or her own views. The process is dynamic and multifaceted, creating mutual joy and understanding.
For myself, I love talking with a wide range of people from all over the world. I always learn something new and I find it inspiring to be exposed to different ways of thinking. This is a kind of spiritual nutrition for me.
My experience is that no matter how strong the initial uncertainty, or even hostility another person may feel toward you, if you approach them with complete sincerity and speak the truth, they will invariably respond in kind.
Face-to-face conversation may seem like something very ordinary, but it is in fact the most powerful tool for positive change we possess. We can exchange ideas on a very human, personal level, with a basis of respect and faith in each other’s essential goodness. Everyone involved is equal; there is neither superior or inferior.
The French thinker Montaigne loved discussion, and he always kept an open mind, saying, “No proposition astounds me, no belief offends me, however much opposed it may be to my own. Contradictions of opinion only arouse and exercise my mind.” To him, dialogue was the search for truth, and he claimed that he welcomed and embraced the truth, in whoever’s hands he found it.
As we have two ears and one mouth, maybe we should listen twice as much as we speak. Certainly if we are self-righteous or prejudiced, no one will approach us with an open heart.
Sometimes our attempts to start a discussion or talk things over may be slighted or ignored. Then we should remember that rejection and disappointment are inevitable in life, and just keep on trying. Maintaining dialogue takes great patience and perseverance. We need to develop a strong sense of self, so that although we can clearly see the emotions of the other person, we keep on calmly and steadily “rowing” closer to their heart.
The biggest obstacle to successful dialogue is usually excessive attachment to one’s own point of view. For instance, a rift between a parent and child will not be easily healed as long as the parent only sees things as a parent, and the child only from his or her own viewpoint.
In a genuine discussion, it is best if we can see any confrontations that arise as just another form of our connectedness. If both parent and child can see themselves as sharing common ground—making up a family together—things can take a surprisingly easy turn for the better. The deeper the common feeling that binds us, the more we can embrace those who differ from us and ensure that dialogue will lead to a fruitful outcome.
Whether the problem is that of a single family, or international in scope, if those involved can view things from a higher perspective, with a sense of shared purpose, the gears of dialogue will always start to turn in a positive direction.
If more people were to pursue dialogue in an equally broad-minded and persistent manner, I am sure that the inevitable conflicts of human life would find easier resolution. Prejudice would give way to understanding, and war to peace. Genuine dialogue results in the transformation of opposing viewpoints, changing them from wedges that drive people apart into bridges that link them together.