What's in a Word
Is skill with words instinctive, gifted only to professional actors, lawyers, ministers, politicians? Or can we who attend the sick learn to speak deftly and creatively too? Would it help? Can words heal what ails us?
Words constitute the ever-evolving storehouse of a myriad human languages. Every language has known – mysteriously but innately – which words to drop and which to keep: Darwinian survival at its fittest. Conversation serves to synapse our collective intelligence, to build bridges, and to ease the aloneness we all experience. Psychologists know this two-way power of words, in the Indo-European root sense of ghosti –host-and-guest. James Pennebaker has harnessed its therapeutic potential as confessional, enabling countless sufferers to free up their thoughts and feelings, heal long-endured emotional and physical pains without a scar.
Every human encounter offers the chance for this intimate connection, unveiling ourselves through words exchanged in buses, check-out lines, waiting rooms – and doctors’ offices. Their artful power lies in the communion they catalyze between us. Another’s total attention links our right brains to our left, lets us both express our feelings and clarify our thoughts.
It took most of my forty years of doctoring to learn how much to listen and how much to talk. Imagine the Physicians Drug Reference offering prescribing guidelines for how to “dose” words to greatest benefit: Rx One part talk to three parts listen? If we practice this human bonding with words, we’ll get better at it: our mind’s only a muscle after all, as Natalie Goldberg reminds us. This exercise can restore the innate creative voice of both speaker and listener, help us express hard things and deep ideas as we draw closer – hearts empathic, yet minds clear. This skill needs constant exercise, because we’ll feel shy and fall on our faces a lot when we first try.
My physiology teacher taught me, “If you can’t explain what you’re doing to the floor cleaner, it’s because you don’t know what you’re doing.” Words spoken with thought and intention stay fresh as the rhythmic, aesthetic, and precise art of poetry. Poetry’s exactness has been for me an antidote to the obfuscation of academic articles that draw equivocal conclusions from inconclusive data. Robert Graves called poetry “…a universal bitter-sweet mixture for all possible household emergencies… a complete dispensary of medicine…” But every single word is a poem, has as much hurtful as healing power as a drug if not used with care. Reclaiming the potent art of ‘mind-to-mouth-to-voice-to-ear-to-mind’ communication was pediatrician William Carlos Williams’ enduring gift – “my food and drink, the very thing that made it possible for me to write.” And he became, as he honed his poetic art, a much-beloved doctor for his artful service to the sick..