The power of death and life

I thought of the days of long ago
And remembered the years long past. (Psalm 77)

The Scriptures frequently summon us to remember the past (Psalm 143:5), and I do look back on my life more—to the days when life was young. There’s a keen sorrow for things irrevocably lost, for so many lost and lovely things—all the summers that have come and gone. There’s a great deal of happiness behind me, and there are the tears and fears and struggles of those dear, dead days. There are so many people dead, my parents gone, my grandparents, a favorite aunt for whom I could do no wrong, good friends taken away, so many separations from those who loved and shaped me. I saw them all as boundless.

There are the standing distresses of my life, wounds that I have both suffered and inflicted. They reverberate throughout my life. I think we are all assaulted by memories of past wounds and failures, all the little deaths inflicted on us. I think we’re all scared by sad and hurtful events of the past, things we would prevent having happened if we could.

There are the wounds I have suffered, and there are the wounds I have inflicted. Philosopher Martin Heidegger stated that if one looks honestly at one’s past, there is a response of guilt.

There are things I regret and would love to undo, but they are irretrievable and irreparable. Faces come back from the past. There are tears I would like to dry and departed people from whom I would like to ask forgiveness.

There are all the things I had not done and should have done or had not said and should have said. There are the unsaid apologies, the unstated affections. There’s remorse about lost chances, favors I didn’t do, injustices I didn’t repair, promises I didn’t keep, opportunities for charity I put off. I’m particularly sorry for all the loves in my life at which I have blundered and for the opportunities of love that I have wasted. They are instances, if I could, I would retrieve, undo, wipe out.

But the outstanding distress of my life, what endures and keeps coming back to haunt me, are words I said. Some of the worst pains I suffered came from cruel words spoken to me, words that did harm to me, injured me, sometimes deeply and permanently. I think some of the worst pains we all suffer come from cruel words, and the damage can be permanent.

There comes over me a sad, sorry feeling about things I’ve said. They keep coming back to shame and hurt me. Some irrevocable pain was released into life. There’s a Spanish proverb: “Three things do not come back: the spent arrow, the spoken word, the lost opportunity.”

There is great power in words. The Book of Proverbs states that “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (18:21). Here are some other quotes:

“The tongue is made to be used in love” (Catherine of Siena).

“Speech is to be full of mercy” (Letter of James 3:17).

“Where words are many, sin is not wanting” (Proverbs 10:19).

“Never miss a good chance to shut up” (Will Rogers)—a tribute that was paid to a great linguist stated that “he could be silent in seven different languages.”

“A good word surpasses the best gift” (Rule of St. Benedict).

“A compliment can warm three winter months” (Spanish Proverb).

Words have been called “the physicians of a spirit.”

“I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. By your words you will be acquitted and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36).

“It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles one” (Mt.15:10-11).

“Say only the good things people need to hear, things that will help them…. Get rid of all harsh words, slander, and malice of every kind. In place of these, be kind to one another, compassionate, and mutually forgiving” (Ephesians 4:29-31).

Finally, when I look back on my life, there have been things I did with wisdom and love. And despite the distresses, life overall was “very good,” just as Genesis promised. Indeed, life was often a joyous thing. I can say that “the favors of the Lord I will recall, for He has been good to me” (Isaiah 63:7). With Job I can say “Oh, that I were in the months of old.” There was much to celebrate in life, much to be thankful for. It was good to be alive, to be on this earth; there’s the wonder of having existed.