Words are powerful tools. They are capable of convincing a friend, selling an idea, or shaping the course of history. Time and time again words have demonstrated their potential, used both for vile and just purposes. Abe Lincoln used them to stitch up a divided country. Hitler used them to manipulate a bitter Germany. Regardless of their use however, words have always been a method by which to deliver meaning. Over time, some words have developed to become staples of a specific meaning. Yet other words seem to have lost their purpose. Some words no longer mean what they used to, or even anything at all.

And there are still others.

On the surface, they appear to have retained the same definition. But their true definitions, their meanings to the people who use them, have faded away.

Achievement is one such word. Where it used to mean something to be proud of, something to aim for, something to admire, it is now tossed around simply as doing anything. When people started clubs before, they did it because they truly cared about something. Whether it was helping other teens come to terms with their homosexuality, providing students with a place to dance and express themselves, or trying their the absolute best to raise funds for youth sarcoma. The leaders of the past had visions for whatever their passions may have been, and formed clubs for the sake of that vision. Sadly, this has become increasingly rare. With higher education or advanced job offers looming, everyone has been pressured to “achieve” more. A staple question of almost any interview has become, “What is your biggest achievement up to date?” It seems that if there isn’t anything that counts as an achievement on your résumé, society will gnash you between its cruel, cruel molars. And that means that there are more clubs being started for the sake of making an “achievement” rather than out of passion. Genuine motivation has fallen to increasing the number of bullet points on semi-professional pieces of paper.

Leadership has also lost its meaning. It has always been a sought out attribute of any application to any internship, research position, or university program.  Are you a leader?  List your three most important leadership roles up to date. To be accepted into anything, you must be a leader. And yet the definition of a leader only calls for a few people that head an entire organization or operation. What about the others? What about the so-called ordinary “members” that usually define what the organization is, or how well it does? Do they not get any recognition simply because they don’t have the label of “leader”? I’m not saying that leadership is a bad trait. Every group needs someone who can make decisions when it counts, make people do their part, and unite the group for a major project. But so often have I seen examples where the leaders do less work than “normal” members, call up a few connections, spin a few stories for their résumés and essays, and end up with all the recognition for the entire group. That isn’t right. Granted, everyone does it or needs to do it to some extent. That’s just how it is. But sometimes, it goes beyond a few inflated details in a otherwise genuine report. Sometimes, deserved recognition is stolen from the collective group.

One lost word has left me more heartbroken than the others. Freedom is the last word I’d have expected to lose its meaning. So often have people thrown that word around. Once upon a time, freedom was what soldiers gave lives for. Freedom was what you fled your country for. Freedom was what no one could take away. Freedom meant that no one would be able to stop you from doing what you loved. It is sought after by everyone in the world, for it is part of what makes us human. Yet for all of the desire to obtain such an important right, it is sorely mistreated. We say we live in a free country. That we have the freedom of choice. That we are free men and women. But what do we mean when we say that? Do we say it only because that’s what we are told? If a precise definition doesn’t come to mind, something is wrong. You are supposed to give meaning to freedom. It is something that is both unique and common at the same time. However, this will be threatened.  There are and will be many times when injustices are committed by the people in charge. Some suck it up and take the blow. Others complain about it, and then let it die down. But those attitudes will only serve as the harbingers for more infractions, methods by which the mechanism of freedom is lost. Little by little, a population will grow complacent, and any injustices that are done are eventually forgotten. It happens to small organizations. It happens to entire nations.

It grieves me to no end that words that once held such powerful and positive definitions have been plagued and perverted. But it isn’t too late to save them. Not all clubs are purposeless places where nobody really cares about the cause.  Find those with strong, passionate leaders who truly care about what they do, and join their cause if it matches yours. Aspire to be like them when you reach those positions yourself, and always love what you do. Be a leader not for the achievement, but because you truly care. And the achievement will come in time. With respect to freedom – find your own definition of freedom, and stick to it. Never let anyone take that away from you, and defend it when it is challenged. Do what you truly love, and don’t be afraid to pursue your own happiness, wherever that may lie. But don’t try to be different just because. Freedom simply means you don’t have to stay in the box. You don’t have to be out of it completely just so you can say that you are.

Take control of your own life. Fight for what you believe in, no matter how small it is. Because if it is a principle of yours, it shouldn’t go down without a fight. It doesn’t matter if you are wrong or right, or neither. Freedom means that you should be able to express your opinion, and it gives you the right to determine what is wrong or right by your own standards. Just be prepared for someone who can reason out an issue better than you can. It takes little to sway the human mind. And it’s okay – your definitions of justice and freedom can change over time. As long as you always ensure that what you believe in is never lost without a good cause, you have done your best.

That means getting out there and making a difference. Do what you love without fear. Take charge and achieve what you want. Remind your leaders that it is you who put them there, and it is you that they need to be afraid of.

Save these words. Breath meaning into these hollow shells again.

It’s up to you.