I often find it hard to find the right words.
People who know me are sometimes surprised to hear this, since I spend a lot of time writing (not to mention talking). But it’s true nonetheless.
In fact, I don’t think my many years of writing have made finding the right words much easier–or, at least, not in the way you might think. Years of practice have certainly made it easier to string together sentences and paragraphs. But they haven’t given me the word power most people would actually want–the ability to say something meaningful, wise, and helpful in the moments when it matters most.
Last Monday, I learned that the father of an old friend of mine had passed away. This old friend and I have not been close in years. For reasons I won’t get into–but mostly just because that’s how life goes–we had fallen out of touch.
When I learned of his father’s passing, I was filled with both sadness and regret. Sadness because my friend had lost his father, a man I remember fondly–a man who, along with other adults in my neighborhood, helped to give me a happy childhood. Regret because I hadn’t made more of an effort to keep in touch over the years. I hadn’t even known my old friend’s father was sick–which doesn’t make me much of an old friend.
For all the writing I’ve done over the years, I had never managed to write and say “hey old friend, I hope you’re doing well.” And now it felt like there were no right words to say. Nothing that wouldn’t sound empty and pat and a little pathetic.
I did the best I could, as one does in such situations. I learned long ago that it’s better to say something rather than nothing when someone dies or another tragedy strikes. A simple “deepest condolences” or “I’m thinking of you” may feel feeble in your mouth, but it’s generally fine and certainly better than nothing. It’s not as if there’s anything more you can say that will actually stop the grief. I know enough to know that those “right words” just don’t exist.
Still, I came away thinking about how and when and why I use the words I do. Too often, I suspect, I try to use words mainly to seem smart. Too rarely, I suspect, I try to use them to keep in touch and deepen connections.
Words serve both of these purposes for us humans: they capture and convey information, and they communicate care and concern. But not necessarily in that order. In fact, the less you’ve done of the latter, the harder you will tend to find the former: A better friend would have struggled less to speak this week; a best friend might not have needed to speak at all.
In the end, it’s mostly the distance between us that makes the right words hard to find. But it’s the failure to find words–any words–that increases the distance between us.
With that in mind, I’m going to try to choose words more wisely going forward, and write more to connect and not just to convey. In other words, I’m going to try to be a better old friend.
I’d advise you to do the same, pretty much any day. Think about who you haven’t talked to in a while and send them a simple note. Don’t worry too much about the words. If you’re reaching out to connect, they will be all right.