Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Words Have Power

"You can change your world by changing your words."
Joel Olsteen

As a youngster of Sicilian descent, raised in the 40's in neighborhoods where Sicilian was synonymous with Mafia and crime, and therefore, distrusted, even feared, I became painfully aware of the power of words at a very early age.  In the 50's, as an adolescent and teenager, I experienced how easily labels become stereotypes and how those stereotypes create barriers and estrangement.    How easily what the outside world says about us can become what we believe about ourselves.

Fortunately, my parents worked consistently to counteract the words and messages they knew their children were receiving.  They encouraged us to take pride in who we were, our talents and what we could accomplish with them. To not let the outer voices become the inner voices in our heads.

Perhaps that's why I have no problem with political correctness, other than my concern that we seem only to have created more subtle ways to imply a group is less than, weaker than, out of the mainstream, not quite as capable.  Or conversely, of course, better than, more competent, smarter, more righteous, more valuable.

I'd like to think it isn't always mean-spirited.  That using the word "deserve" in ads from pharmaceuticals to flooring isn't intended to encourage entitlement.  Or the word "anti-aging" for so many products and services out there isn't intended to suggest there is something wrong with growing older.  But I notice the visceral reaction I have to these words or to the words attached to growing older, words like - forgetful, diminished, feeble, Luddite - words I hear some of my contemporaries using for themselves.  The outer voices having become their inner voices.

Recently, in my quest to learn more about the aging process and what I might think or do in order to age well, I returned to a classic volume I read years ago when taking on the care-giving of my parents (who weren't aging well), appropriately titled, Aging Well by George Vaillant.  How could I have forgotten that gerontologists, who certainly do mean well, have labeled the last stages of life as old, old old and very old.  Imagine my shock to discover that I am officially old old when I don't even feel old yet!  I'm not inordinately forgetful, certainly not diminished or feeble, and working hard not to be a Luddite.

So, I'm on the hunt for better words to describe myself and my contemporaries, words like elder, and sage, mature, vital and wise.  More positive labels like the labels social philosopher and family therapist, Michael Guerian suggests we adopt for life after fifty, The Age of Transformation, The Age of Distinction and The Age of Completion.  Who wouldn't prefer to think of themselves as members of The Age of Distinction rather than one of the old old!  

I don't know if this is the first or most important step to aging well, but I know it matters.  I agree with Joel Olsteen, so I want as much as possible to use words to describe myself, my world, and my stage in life to be positive, words that encourage rather than limit satisfaction, words that promote healthy optimism.  Yes, elder and sage, mature, vital and wise.  And....???

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