The other day I encountered this realization that the words I write could have a huge impact, that it could change how things are for hundreds or maybe even thousands of people. Well, I’m probably exaggerating here but I came to envision the real potential of what my voice could mean.

So how did I react to that?

Honestly, I cowered in response.

The notion scared me, had me freeze in place. All this time when I wrote things, I knew it was for the intended people to read them, comment on them, maybe start a discussion. It was an interesting activity, a powerful way to communicate and leave our legacies. There’s the saying that the pen is mightier than the sword and it’s one I could easily find myself nodding my head to, but I guess I never imagined what it would be like if I wielded such a mighty pen. Now that I have, I’m kind of taken aback that my instinct was to drop the pen in fear.

It’s weird because when I interacted with clients in social services agencies as a social work intern or as a staff member, I was keenly aware that what I said and how I acted could have an impact on the clients’ lives. It’s a burden to carry as a social services worker, a responsibility workers must be acutely aware of and sensitive to at all times. How we document client interactions and incidents matter, especially in the long run. As they become legally binding documents, those words come to have undeniable, maybe even unintended degree of power. Yet, I had accepted this responsibility without much internal struggle. I could remain confident that I had or would have the necessary training.

I am comfortable with being held accountable for my actions taken towards and words said about specific clients I had met with. There’s a sense that mistakes or miscommunication can be rectified, that a compromise or understanding can ultimately be achieved. The impacts are also more immediately felt. When a person is upset at me because of something I said, I can come to know that right as I look at the facial expression of that person. So even though the previous words I had used before could potentially have a huge impact, the potential didn’t cripple me with fear.

The difference is that those are not the words that can change and form policies, policies which can have an direct and indirect impact on hundreds or thousands of people, people whom I’ve never met face to face. I don’t know what they look like, what they sound like, but suddenly I find myself in a world where words typed up on a computer screen, and then later reviewed and approved by governing bodies can determine how systems operate. Words can be so impersonal, yet ultimately they can determine the most personal aspects of groups of people. It’s this power of words that empowered me but at the same time debilitated me.

Like most people I like to think that my ideas are good, that my voice matters, that I don’t really make mistakes. I’m certainly privileged with years of education and training and growing up in a fairly well-off socioeconomic background. I want to assert that some things that are on paper are problematic and should be changed and reformed, or removed altogether. Before, without realizing the potential power of words, I was giving my honest critique with joyful abandon, but now that I’m aware, suddenly the idea of reform and change doesn’t have the same ring as it once did.

Now I realize for myself why people fear change.

But words aren’t formed in a vacuum. Words have meaning because we as a collective society have decided that they do. Words have power because people who write them, people who read them, people who have to abide by them, we all agree that they are to have certain power over us.

I was able to accept the burden of words when I was a social work intern interacting directly with clients. I must now come to learn to accept the burden of words as a social work intern engaged in a world of policies and laws.