*Author’s note, 1/7/21: Earlier versions of this article incorrectly attributed these words to the Sufi mystic poet, Rumi; they are historically attributed to the Persian poet, Hafiz, another favorite Islamic poet of mine. I apologize for my confusion.
What did the Persian poet Hafiz mean when he said, “The words we speak become the house we live in”?
As a writer, poet, word-nerd, and life coach, I understand Hafiz’s words to mean that the words that we use to communicate, think to ourselves, and describe our experiences in life build an imaginary “house” or internal place from which we experience, interpret, and define the quality of our entire lives.
These days, it can be easy to forget that our words carry such significance, influence, and power.
It’s easy to take our words for granted.
Every day, we’re tempted to use our words unconsciously, mindlessly, even haphazardly.
But ever since my first experience of being saddled with depression more than a decade ago, I discovered just how powerful the words are that we think, speak, and believe every single day. Sure, thinking negative thoughts once doesn’t mean you’re depressed, but if you think of depressive or negative or sad thoughts for long enough, those thoughts can recreate your whole experience and cause depressive feelings to take root.
Depression, for me, was born of a series of stories, words, ideas and feelings. They came together to manifest a tangible reality — in my body, my physical “home” — that I could no longer avoid.
When Hafiz says, “The words we speak become the house we live in,” he meant to say that what we think, say, believe, and feel construct a single vantage point from which we experience all of life and all of ourselves: the human mind.
Who was Hafiz?
Hafiz was a Persian man of the Islamic faith (or, otherwise known as Muslim) who was born over 600 years ago in what is now modern-day Iran. Despite the differences in Hafiz’s culture, religion, and the time in which he lived (the 1300s), Hafiz is often described as one of the most beloved poets of our time whose wisdom can help us lead better, happier lives, even today.
Hafiz’s words were very much born of his culture and faith: it’s important to acknowledge that Hafiz was a practicing Muslim, especially in today’s charged political atmosphere where many in the West only associate to Muslims or the Islamic faith through radicalized terrorism or other extreme representations of Islam, which is a peaceful faith.
Despite living his religious life more than eight centuries ago, the words of Hafiz still resonate so strongly over a thousand years later because of Hafiz’s ability to demonstrate an understanding of the human condition in ways that transcend differences of culture and religion.
Hafiz knew that our words carry power.
The words that we use shape our perceptions, alter our perspectives, and define our overall understanding of the quality and value of our lives.
What Hafiz Meant
When Hafiz said, “The words we speak become the house we live in,” he meant to say that the words we use every day create the “emotional home” or the psychological vantage point from which we operate, live, work, and exist, every day.
Our words construct our “narrative understanding” of who we are, what we do, and why we do it.
- If you love who you are and accept yourself fully, the “house in which you live” (or, your everyday experience of yourself) will naturally feel more loving, grateful, and kind.
- If you are very hard on yourself, criticize your appearance every day, or think you cannot accomplish anything of value, the proverbial “house” in which you live will naturally feel more self-abusive, harsh, negative, or cynical.
The goal for each of us is to gradually and patiently change the words that we use every day, day after day, so that the “house” that we “build” for ourselves is more closely aligned to our personal values, desires, goals, wishes, dreams, and the overall good existence that we each deserve.
It doesn’t and cannot happen all at once.
I often say to my coaching clients that “the only change that lasts is the change that’s chosen” day after day.
As a coach, I listen for specific words and try to hear beneath surface-level descriptions to try to uncover the truth of what my client may be experiencing, struggling, or expressing. I pay close attention to verbal tics and repetitious phrases — even in my everyday conversations at the gym or coffee shop. As a writer, professional communicator, and lover of language, I pay attention to what words I use to instinctively describe a day or a moment or an experience.
What I’ve learned is that Hafiz affirmed in his poem from nearly 6oo years ago:
The words that we think, speak, and believe matter because words are what comprise the narrative fabric of how we human beings understand who we are, what we do, and what life is all about.
Words are what describe and define every understanding that we have about our lives.
That’s what Hafiz meant when he wrote, “The words we speak become the house we live in.”
So, please choose your words well, my friend!