People come and go, but words linger. On a page. On a screen. On a heart.
Oh, I don’t rank words above people. The legacy of voice and touch, of a pair of eyes focused on you, these are the human emollients that take the edge off life at the same time they make it endurable. Human interaction is of instant worth and permanent consequence.
Words can never impact comparably. That’s because they are a stand-in for the real thing. Stories are about the interaction of living things. Historical accounts are about human events. Reports are about something someone did or said or was observed doing or saying. They are just words. When they are misspelled, they are not even that!
What gives words and sentences, chapters and libraries their power is what they represent—people. The article in Air & Space Magazine about a sleek airplane will fascinate a reader only if it tells who designed the plane, who built it, who flies it, and the chances of the reader flying in it, too. The people are the plane.
Powerful words sometimes are not about people per se. They are about inanimate or nonhuman objects that have been personified. Spot, the beloved rat terrier, becomes a “buddy,” a “companion,” and a “friend” when actually it remains a four-legged, short-haired, floppy-eared animal that will still pee in the flowerbed no matter how adorably it cants its head and seems to understand your reprimand.
Words persuade us otherwise. The dog comprehends. The woman in the novel really was frightened by the sounds outside her window. The soldier in battle really did drag a picture of his wife out of his pocket for one last look before dying. The child actually won the race and the respect of peers despite all odds. We read it. We felt it.
People come and go and the loss sometimes is great. Words are no substitute for people, but they can help us remember them.