Walking my dog in the park one early morning, I encountered a man doing the same. I put my dog on her leash and stepped off to the side of the trail as he came closer, avoiding a face to face confrontation between the dogs, which sometimes results in a loud and embarrassing incident. As he passed, we exchanged pleasantries and I explained that my dog wasn’t always friendly, so I found it best to keep our distance, to which he replied, “I understand”, smiled and walked on.
His response made me feel so much better about myself and my dog, magically absolving me of my self-inflicted shame for not better socializing her. This man, this stranger, handed me back my dignity with those two simple words.
The experience stayed with me for hours, as I pondered the power of the statement, I understand. I thought of all the times I’ve used other, less comforting expressions. I drew back into focus those complicated conversations that took wrong turns, resulting in hurt feelings and alienation, having left another wounded, even though it wasn’t my intention, because my efforts fell short of communicating compassion.
I wondered about how well I choose my words, in conversation, consultation, debate or conflict with others and whether, or not, I select them carefully enough. How often do I offer the kindness of well-chosen words to those who share my life, or any other human being struggling to be heard, attempting to explain their perspective and position; how substituting, all right or okay, paled miserably compared to his short declaration that communicated so clearly a sense of acceptance.
I thought about the state of our country, the world, my own neighborhood and community and how often I witness misunderstanding and animosity that perhaps could be avoided with an effort to see beyond our own position and extend to another the olive branch of words that disarm and diffuse even the most virulent of encounters.
It suddenly seemed so obvious that my choice of words could have such an impact on, not only how others feel, but how I feel about myself.
Words matter. As a writer, I know that, but as a woman, a friend, a community member and a fellow citizen of our planet, I seemed to have forgotten how much, until a chance encounter with a kind stranger reminded me.