The Little Words by Kelly Brown Douglas

As I contemplate the state of our world from the rhetoric of shut-downs to stand your ground, from the self-righteousness of political discourse to the dogma of ecclesiastic pronouncements, and from the justifications for political inequality to the explanations for ecological disregard, I wonder what has happen to all of our little words?

What has happen to our little words of gratitude? These are words like “thank you,” or “I appreciate that,” or “that is kind of you.” Have you ever noticed how in our world today people rush through it without stopping to say thank you? We have become a taken-for-granted people in a taken-for-granted world. We act as if we are entitled to certain things because of who we are or simply because we are. But here is the thing, that which we take for granted we tend to squander, to abuse, and to easily discard—like our natural and human resources. We take for granted our relationships to the earth as well as to one another. We take for granted our life on this planet and our life in community. It is time that we recover our little words. We must learn once again to speak little words of gratitude, for such little words go a long way in changing our world and to transforming a people from being wasteful, excessive and warring to being conserving, non-indulging, and peaceable.

What has happen to our little words of respect, words like sir or ma’m, Mr. or Ms.? You rarely if ever hear those words any more, let alone words like please. Instead you hear words like, “those people,” or “that woman,” or “that man,”  as well as commands like, “do this”, or “do that,” or “just do your job.” Words of respect have become lost to us. Yet, words of respect are words that signal to those with whom we interact that they are not our property, they are not a commodity, they are not objects to be tossed about, or sheer animals that can be bossed around, used and discarded.  Rather they signal to people they are human beings to be treated with the sacred dignity that is theirs. It is not about a person’s office, title or status, it is about a person’s humanity. Little words of respect go a long way in forging a world that honors, esteems and highly regards the sacredness of every single individual that walks on the face of the earth.

Where have those little words of responsibility gone to? They are simple little words like “I was wrong,” or “I made a mistake.” In our world today we hear words of excuses like “everybody does it,” or “it is no big deal” or “who does it hurt, really?” or “they are to blame, not me.” The way to a more moral world is not where everyone is perfect, where no one makes mistakes or where no one does something wrong. There are no mistake-free, perfect people in the world—at least as far as I know. The way to a more moral world is where imperfect people are willing to speak words of responsibility, like “I was wrong.” To say I was wrong is to be accountable for our actions and to set us on the right course of righting the wrong that was done. To be sure, you can’t make right that which you never admit was wrong in the first place.

What has happen to the little words of humility, like “help, or “I don’t know.” We live in a world of rugged individualism where hubris reigns. We have nurtured a culture where people are ridiculed for asking for help as if they are incapable, weak or shamelessly dependent. Giving and receiving help is seen as a moral failing and a shameless entitlement.  Ours is a world where people are expected to pull their own weight and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Moreover, we have fostered a way of being in the world where not knowing all of the answers is seen as an intellectual deficit. To say that I don’t have the answer or to ask what another thinks is viewed as a weakness.  To ask for help is not a moral failing and to admit not knowing is not a sign of a weak mind, rather both show strength of character. To ask for help indeed recognizes not only that we can not make it without another, but it recognizes the strength that comes when we trust in the strength of others. To ask for help unleashes that good, compassionate, and giving-spirit that compels us to be helpers one to another in times of need. And to be sure, it is not until we are able to ask for help ourselves that we will be able to help others. The more we think we can do everything by ourselves, the more we believe we have made it on our own and that we have “pulled ourselves up by our own wits, ingenuity and bootstraps,” then the less likely we will be to help another to make it. Knowing how to ask for help is the first step to building a just and benevolent world. Likewise, to admit that which we don’t know is the first step toward recognizing that the way other people experience and see the world is important—and indeed that who we are shapes, if not limits, how we see the world. It is only when we can admit what we don’t know and what we can’t see that we will become a truly global community.

And so why talk about little words in our world of big problems? Because little words matter. They are the words that change the quality of our living and the shape of our world. Audre Lorde reminds us that we must be the change that we want to see. If indeed we want to see a world where the earth and all that there is therein is respected as the sacred creation that it is, then we must make the little words of gratitude, respect, responsibility and humility a part of our vocabulary of living. Change does start from the bottom-up. Dehumanizing and destructive systems and structures do not come from above, they emerge from below. They are a reflection of who we are even as they act back upon us in unimaginable ways. If we are to change the web of power, we must change the web of our relationships. Simply put, a people who have a sacred regard for one another and the earth simply will not tolerate systems and structures that do otherwise.

Why is a womanist theologian talking about little words?  Because I believe that it is in the little words of our living that we find God acting to make our world more reflective of the way God created it to be.  This I know for sure, the big words of our world have not moved us any closer to God’s world of justice, equality and peace and so perhaps it is time for us to reclaim the little words.

Kelly Brown Douglas is Professor and Director of the Religion Program at Goucher College where she has held the Elizabeth Conolly Todd Distinguished Professorship. She was recently awarded The Goucher College Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award for outstanding faculty achievement. Kelly is a leading voice in the development of a womanist theology, Essence magazine counts Douglas “among this country’s most distinguished religious thinkers, teachers, ministers, and counselors.”  She has published numerous essays and articles in national publications, and her books include The Black ChristSexuality and the Black ChurchWhat’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Soul.  Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant is her most recently released book (Palgrave Macmillan, Fall 2012). Kelly is also a priest in the Episcopal Church and has served as Associate Priest at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. for over 20 years.

Categories: Activism, Community, Ethics, General, Justice, Womanist Theology

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8 replies

  1. Thank you! I appreciate this reminder of the power of civility.


  2. Brava! I think the little words–like “please” and “thank you”–are more important than the big words. I wish everybody would read your blog.


  3. Thank you for sharing. I appreciate your thoughtfulness. :-)


  4. “Hello”. I think that is the nicest small word of all. When I lived in southern California, people didn’t stop to say “hello”, let alone “It’s nice to see you”. Then I moved to southern Oregon, and the world changed. People here take the time for “hello”, and even for “thank you”. It has really changed my perspective on life. I like starting my day with “thank yous” to the all the creatures and things around me, and it is so much easier and nicer to do with an aura of good will peeking out from all around. I feel sad for those in large metropolitan areas who don’t get to experience these simple joys of life. Thank you for sharing.


  5. Thank you, Kelly, for this post. My favorite 2 sentences are: “If we are to change the web of power, we must change the web of our relationships. Simply put, a people who have a sacred regard for one another and the earth simply will not tolerate systems and structures that do otherwise.” I have a lot of scattered thoughts about the post.

    • Your post is a this reminder to humanize our world. One of the little ways that I try to spread the joy is whenever someone compliments another person, I tell the person for whom it was meant (good triangulation, if you will) or suggest that the first person pass it on to the intended recipient. But I really don’t think that gratitude, respect, responsibility, humility, and the understanding of our interdependence are “little words” (and neither do you, I suspect). They are attitudes that point our lives towards a more joyful, peaceful life with each other.

    • I live in the Midwest where the “little words” live and even thrive, sometimes to the detriment of the big words. We haven’t learned how to disagree out here. Instead we seem to need harmony or at least the appearance of unanimity. What we really need is to learn to listen to each other even when we disagree, because that’s how you compromise or forge true alliances.

    • Just one quibble. I agree that change starts from the bottom-up. But I disagree that “Dehumanizing and destructive systems and structures do not come from above, they emerge from below.” I believe that many of the dehumanizing and destructive systems and
    structures in our society have been imposed from above. To give you an example that I’m sure you will agree with: racism came from the destructive structure of slavery and its continuation in a variety of dehumanizing behaviors from reconstruction on down through the lynchings of the 1880s to the 1920s until today’s more insidious forms. You must mean something other than what I’m seeing in that sentence.


  6. I often wonder about civility and how it is defined. As a radical lesbian feminist non-gender conforming woman, I rarely get treated very well by the masses of heterosexual women out there, and face threats of violence occasionally from men out in the world. I get seated at the worst tables in restaurants, get confronted now and then by straight women in restrooms, etc. Personally, I am tired of having to conform to rules of civility that I rarely experience day and day out. So straight women want to flaunt their heterosexual privilege, and men think they can physically threaten me, and I’m supposed to respond how? I have my own tried and true ways. I’m not being nice to straight women who oppress me ever again, I’m not going to give a free pass to support my enemies… I’m just not going along with this. Next…


  7. This is a lovely piece. So on point. There is this silly but illustrative VW bug commercial along these lines: There is person walking happily down the street. The camera takes everyone back in time to see why that person is smiling…someone had done them some basic kindness, then we see why that person was so kind, someone had smiled at them or said something kind, all the way back to the first person in the chain of kindness….who sees a VW bug and smiles. Okay, silly, but the point is a good one. Oppression arises, at least in large part, due to a disconnection between the humanity of one person and another. And the simple words reconnect us, more deeply than we could imagine. I love this piece. Thank you so much for it.


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