Saturday, February 22, 2020

Don't Discount the Value of Words

Words. We live in a sea of them and can't live without them. They vex us and bless us. We are too seldom “at a loss for” and too often subject to “a torrent of.” Technology has taken words to new heights -- or lows as the case may be – with a “chattering class” which makes much of little so the airwaves are filled with that of which we scarcely know and about which we can do less. It can be overwhelming, and then we use words to talk about it, with ironic smile.

The late communications guru, Neil Postman, was prophetic on the matter. His book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” should be required reading, and its introduction is worth the price. Comparing Orwell “Books will be burned” and Huxley “Books will become meaningless” he lands with Huxley, predicting the information explosion would overwhelm us and “truth would be lost in a sea of irrelevance.”

It seems Postman was right. Words pour forth with no end in sight and knowing the actual real truth is almost an afterthought. “The truth will set us free” indeed, but where is it? In exasperation we resort to believing what we want to believe, various competing truth claims left aside. And so it is, all but unavoidably so.

But we dare not leave it there. Our lives emphatically are not in that ocean of words but in our homes and work, with friends and neighbors. Here words can be real, truthful, meaningful, attached to the lives we know, verified and lived out. Here words really matter.

Do you know the value of a word? I marvel when I think how powerful words can be, for good or ill. A high school teacher once offered a simple compliment, at the right time and in the right way. That word still feeds my soul 40 years later. A beloved distant relative, in a moment of frustration, once yelled at me: “Do you have no brain?!” It was cruel and he knew it. I still remember, and feel the tears. Words matter.

The New Testament writer, James, is plain, practical and wise on this point, as always. His book should also be “required reading.” Paraphrasing the opening of chapter 3, he asks: “Do you know someone who never makes a mistake when they talk? If you do, that person is perfect!” Then he throws down on the value of words, emphasizing the out-sized impact they have. James uses three basic metaphors to illustrate the weight of words: a bit, a rudder, a flame. A bit guides a horse, a rudder directs a ship, a flame burns a forest. Each has power vastly greater than its size.

This is leverage, this is power, this is weight. We should hold in awe the ability we have to take a breath, express that air through tongue and language, and change the world. For so it is. Words -- each one of them – change the world. This is the truth of never putting the toothpaste back into the tube, or never finding the feathers scattered to the wind. Words are easy to speak but impossible to retrieve. They have great value and require great care. They change the world, for good or ill.

Yes, we live in a world of words that can be mind-numbing and truth-dulling. But we can bring healing to this large-scale problem by giving our words value because backed with simple integrity, filled with grace and truth; thoughtful, careful, intended to bless. It's a tall order and a happy opportunity. That's how I want to learn to live, and I hope you do, too.