Everything you could hope to say
Last week I wrote about “Eugene”, who told a room of writing hopefuls on a university course: “Everything you could hope to say has already been said.” Eugene probably didn’t mean for this to become a demotivational mantra – he and the university needed students to keep attending and paying them money. But he didn’t select his words carefully, and seemed unaware of their impact. Eugene is a poet, by the way.
Retrospect is a wonderful word, but not that useful a concept: a re-examination of something you assumed in the past was the right thing to say or do. You wonder how your past self could have possibly thought this thing was a good idea. But it’s too late.
Most monologues that open with “In retrospect...” are long-winded, polite attempts to state the reality: “I fucked up.”
It is difficult to know what impact your words will have on people, especially if you don’t know them that well. What propels a comment to “formative” status for someone might depend on their upbringing, their hopes, their knowledge, their attitude. And the relationship (professional or otherwise) between speaker and listener.
But it’s not impossible to gauge the impact of your comments. (Maybe I was a little harsh on Eugene, but I repeat: he is a poet. It’s a poet’s job to control the impact of painstakingly selected, good words.)
What follows are a handful of phrases uttered to me that had more of an impact than the speaker likely intended. For better or worse, they’ve stuck with me. These memories remind me: You ought to have some inkling of how your words are going to land. They might stay with your listener forever.
Words matter. A lot.