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Understanding the power of words helps us deliver compassion when it’s needed most — Effie Caldarola

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Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, a federal appeals court judge, arrives for a meeting with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., on Capitol Hill in Washington April 4, 2022. (CNS photo/Michael A. McCoy, Reuters)

Words, and how we use them, have great power.

During Senate hearings regarding the nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Jackson told a beautiful story that speaks to that power.

When a freshman at Harvard University, the future attorney was young, intimidated and far from her roots. She was a Black woman on a campus where she encountered those who came from auspicious prep schools and more affluent backgrounds.

Walking through the campus one evening, Justice Jackson said, “a Black woman I did not know was passing me on the sidewalk, and she looked at me. And I guess she knew how I was feeling. And she leaned over as we crossed and said, ‘Persevere.'”

That one word will live with Jackson forever, and has reminded her to encourage others. Just one word, spoken by a perceptive, reflective individual.

Effie Caldarola
Effie Caldarola writes for the Catholic News Service column “For the Journey.” (CNS photo)

Words, spoken and unspoken, can have a long life span and a remarkable ability to affect others. We talk a lot. Talking is fun and brings us into community with others. But sometimes it’s heedless, careless or even inappropriate. Sometimes it’s not reflective, but idle chatter, or worse, gossip or pointed sarcasm.

Sometimes a word or a few are remembered for a lifetime, for good or ill. I would hate to think I have spoken words that I’ve long forgotten that wounded someone and that they have never forgotten.

I want to speak healing words, and the older I get, the more I recognize that the people who speak words of comfort or insight, and those who know when not to speak, are the most reflective people.

Jackson’s encounter reminds me of a story I’ve told before. Pádraig Ó Tuama, in his book “In the Shelter,” tells of a woman traveling in Europe who met a man and they’d agreed to meet at a certain location in Rome later in her journey. Alas, this man, in whom she was interested, never showed up. Later, walking, feeling lonely and rejected, she passed a priest on the street.

As their eyes met, he said one word, “Coraggio,” courage. She recalled that the memory of that encounter changed her life.

What did he see in her eyes? Like the woman encountered by Jackson, he was “listening” with his heart.

Just recently, a close friend told of driving down the road and suddenly feeling completely overwhelmed by a situation with one of her children who was battling an illness. She pulled off the road and called her sister and poured out her fears in great, gasping sobs.

The sister did not say, “Don’t cry.” She did not offer advice. She just listened and encouraged my friend to cry. She offered comfort, not platitudes. She was listening with her heart, and my friend was buoyed by her compassion. “Compassion,” after all, means “to suffer with.”

Sometimes, it’s tempting to think we have the answers to others’ problems, even though it’s impossible to completely understand another’s suffering. But as the old saying goes, everyone we meet is fighting a hard battle.

So we try to be present, to let someone know we are there if they need a friend or a shoulder to cry on. We try, in our everyday life, to talk a little less, perhaps a little slower, and listen more. We bite our tongue to prevent the caustic comment. We think first, and as the comedians say, we read the room, but maybe with a little prayer. Maybe in the evenings, we reflect on the conversations we’ve had, the words we’ve chosen.

Words last a long time. We should use them with grace.