We live in uncertain times – uncertain times created by us as a human race. Whether they be an energy crisis, climate crisis, one of corruption and deceit, or a crisis created by ego where one person or nation wishes to impose itself on another, these times are indeed man-made. Not a result of the force of nature or some seismic co-incidence but by our very own human race of which we are a part and will be a part for many years hence. We are our own enemy, we are our worst opponent.
The cause of these crises, while being of our own doing, are often as a result of our misguided use of the most powerful weapon in the world. I am not talking about missiles or nuclear weapons. I am not talking about assault rifles and petrol bombs. I am talking about words – the words we use and the words we listen to and believe. These two things – what we say and what we hear are the focus of my brief message to you today at this first Friday assembly.
On Monday, I challenged the teaching staff to be aware of the words they use when dealing with young people. I spoke of the importance of words and how words can change a young life – for the good or for the bad. And so today I challenge you with the same charge. To use your words for good. If we keep being told how useless we are, how stupid or ugly and that we will amount to nothing, chances are we will fulfil that prophesy. But if we are told how well we are doing, if someone notices our improvements and successes or even chides us but does so in a gentle and caring manner, we will rise to our potential.
You are not teachers but you use words every day – to your parents, siblings, friends, teachers and members of the general public. You express your opinions to each other and about each other constantly. I ask you today to do so gently so as not to cause hurt. I ask you to choose wisely what comes out of your mouths as you have the potential to cause irreparable harm yet also the opportunity to uplift and encourage. I understand that there are times when a good-natured chirp can be funny to both parties and taken in the context in which it was meant. I am not referring to those instances. I refer rather to the times when we constantly belittle, demean and break down those around us. The weak, the less able than us, the young or indeed the old. Your words can hurt but your words can also heal. Remember that.
Maya Angelou said: “People will forget what you said….but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
And so to my second point – the words we listen to. In this age of information and news, how you sift through this to ascertain the truth I don’t know. That something like “fake news” even exists is a concern of mine. Fake news is created by people and is becomes the truth, even though it isn’t, by constant repetition, usually by those in a position of political power or influence. After all, if a celebrity or a politician says something often enough it must be true!
I often ask myself what it is I wish most of you and for you as you grow. Safety, happiness, peace and so on. But also I wish for you a healthy and active filter that is able to sort out the falsehoods from the truth. And it is hard. Modern history is littered with examples of men making public statements and saying them again and again and again to an unsuspecting public that eventually believes what it hears. Perhaps the greatest examples of this are Nazi Germany when Jews and other non-Aryan people were told often that they were not worthy and Apartheid South Africa where black people were for many decades told they were not the equal of white people to the extent that many white people and indeed some black people believed it! But what alarms me greatly is what is happening in our world today – in your world. I worry that so many untruths come out of the mouths of public figures and I worry that your filter may not be on its highest setting, ready to find out for yourself what actually is true and what is simple rhetoric for personal gain.
So be careful of what you say and choose your words wisely, bearing the receiver of those words in mind. And listen with a discerning ear to those around you. Don’t fall in to the trap of blind acceptance of something simply because you hear it often or it comes from a prominent mouth. Be proud of your ability to sift good from evil and truth from lies.
Mahatma Gandhi once said: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it–always.”