What Are We Building?

Words said, left unsaid
I don’t know – are we building
a wall, or a bridge?

–Rebekah Choat

I used to think talking to strangers was the hardest thing. What in the world could I say to someone I didn’t know, someone who didn’t know me and probably didn’t want to?

Now that I’m older, and a little less afraid of my own shadow (not to mention everyone else’s) I’ve learned to make easy small talk with people who cross my path: the librarian and the pediatrician’s nurse and the girl who takes my order at Chick-Fil-A. The hardest conversations are with those who are closest to me, who really matter in my life.

Sometimes the words said are the difficult ones. Between any two people with any length of shared history – parents and children, siblings, longtime friends – there are words that live on and on, casting their shadows down the years even after the speaker or the hearer or both are gone, for better or worse. “You’re just not cut out for that; why don’t you give it up?” can change the course of an individual life, a career, a family’s dynamic. So can, “You really have a way with words (or children, or paint and canvas).” Even harder can be the words that need to be said, that have to be said, awkward and painful and necessary words: “I’m sorry.” “You were right.” “I’m worried about you.” One of the most nerve-wracking, heart-wrenching conversations I’ve ever felt compelled to initiate was with a dear friend who I feared was unwittingly making a misstep that could have adversely affected his credibility, his reputation, his future.

The words left unsaid can cut both ways as well. There’s a particular void in a child’s heart that can only ever be filled by “I’m proud of you,” a certain level of trust that can never quite be reached without “I will always love you, no matter what.” But how fortunate is the teenage girl who’s never heard “You’d be so pretty if you’d just lose ten pounds (or wear different clothes, or do something with your hair).” How blessed is he who can refrain from saying “I told you so.”

Words, like lengths of lumber or blocks of stone, are raw material. They have a certain innate strength and form, but it is the builder who invests them with structure and purpose. They can be arranged in virtually limitless configurations, made the means to reach any end. Words, identical words, can be barriers that separate us or spans that bring us together, depending on intent and interpretation. Silence, too, can be used either way.

A confidence shared. An explanation given. A candid reaction. A confession made. An apology offered and accepted – or refused. A bit of information withheld. A secret kept. An unstated opinion. An affirmation or a condemnation left unspoken.

Any one of these may be a brick laid into the walls that stand between us. Any one of these may be a stepping stone laid into the paths that lead to where our ways meet.

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