Thursday, October 25, 2012

Behold the Power of Words

Proverbs 18:21(NIV)
The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.

Words are powerful, whether they are proclaimed from a pulpit, delivered from platform, droned from a news desk, vowed at an alter, whispered in the ear.  They affect us when they are written in a moving book, a good-bye letter, or a face book status update.  We read scriptures and they encourage and convict us.  We read the captions in a cartoon and they make us laugh.  We read other things that move us to prayer, to tears, to anger, to frustration, to confusion.  Rousing speeches have been used for centuries to spur men and women on for laying down their lives in battle, for donating their resources to causes which appear just and right, for social actions that range from creative, to healing, to destructive.  Martin Luther King Jr. was a powerful writer and deliverer of speeches.  So wasn't Adolf Hitler.  Every four years we behold the power of propaganda while spin teams on both sides of the isle rip each other apart, paint their candidate as the savior of our nation, and paint the other one as the devil (often, he or she is quite literally labeled as the Anti-Christ).  If you've ever picked up a history book or newspaper from the perspective of a different nation or a different political persuasion, you can attest to the way carefully crafted and persuasive words are used along with facts to paint a specific image of events in the minds of readers (and what's true of other national and political perspectives is quite obviously true of our own).  A strong, emotional and intellectual response to words (whether spoken or written) is part of what makes us human. Whether social anxieties or processing delays make spoken language a formidable foe (this happens for me frequently), or a deeply analytical mind and sensitive emotions make written language more pointed, more potent (this happens for me at times as well), or whether you hide your reactions behind sarcasm and a hipster-generation mask of cavalier unaffectedness (mmm, I do this all the time), you do feel the power of language to some extent every day.  And it doesn't mean that there's something wrong with you.  It means that you are human.  We each feel and wield this power continuously.  The fact that we can produce communication which translates such complex and powerful thoughts and emotions to others is a miraculous marvel unique to the human race.  The fact that this communication can be so instantly formed between ourselves and so many others, thanks to the internet and social networking sites, is a marvel of our modern age.  I believe these marvels should be celebrated, embraced, engaged by everyone who has the will to do so, and that seems to be most people, most of the time.

Actually, some of the most interesting and powerful phenomena in language surround our use of the vast domain of cyberspace.  We often become much more interesting and dynamic personalities online, for instance.  Draped in the safety of apparent distance and delay, or even the safety of anonymity, we can say whatever we want online without having to look another person in the eye to register the emotional affect of and response to our words.  If we hurt, frustrate, or anger someone, it's actually possible to avoid that knowledge or at least delete comments and ignore the results.  This helps us to not feel the rejection we would if our words displeased a friend or acquaintance face-to-face.  It helps us to be braver and more honest about who we really are.  We can take more risks in our humor.   We can be more vulnerable, more bold, more powerful in the way we reach out to others and in the way we express our convictions.  We can avoid responsibility for the affects of our words.

And is there a problem with that?  Sometimes, yeah.  We've all heard the horror stories of cyber bullying and can imagine (if we haven't personally felt it) the power of slander, but that's not really what I'm talking about. I'm talking about little, old you and I.  We're not bullies, or media consultants, or campaign organizers, or curriculum writers, or professional speech writers, most of us.  We're just average Janes and Joes with thoughts, feelings, convictions which run deep (shaped by whatever sources) and which seek the sweet release of self-expression. There are ideas we unleash over others at social gatherings, at the dinner table, on our blog sites or our twitter accounts.

I've said some pretty bold, brave, abrasive, accusing, destructive things online.  Usually the intention is simply to express who I am and be honest about what I'm feeling, and I can do it better online, because it feels safer for me, when I'm the one doing the talking.  Writing.  Same thing.  If you're reading this, by the way, and I've ever cut you to the quick through the internet (even though, I have to admit, you probably wouldn't be reading my blog if I've already hurt your feelings online), I just want to say that I'm sorry.  It wasn't my desire to hurt you or attack you, or anything like that.  I just felt something strongly and needed to express it, and (like so many of us) lost all decorum and need to be respectful because I was online; because the illusion of distance fooled me.  But the illusion of distance has also burned me.  I'll give you an example.  I have this sick compulsion to read comment threads attached to online news articles.  It's a particularly sick compulsion because it's actually a form of self-inflicted injury.  I go for long periods without doing it, and then I'm gripped by curiosity and fall into the trap again, always regretting it.  As I scroll down those rows of racial or religious slurs and unnecessarily combative remarks, my chest becomes heavier and heavier.  Hopelessness wells up in me and, quite frankly, a shameful despair at belonging to the human race.  The unvarnished, naked hatred, or at the very least blatant self-righteousness and disregard for others, is sickening.  There are no intimate acquaintances of the comment writers (unless they've given screen names those they know in real life who also frequent those sights) who could reject them because of their unkindness.  But there is me, along with the hordes of other strange readers, moved as we are when we read a book, a historical speech, or a letter.  Well, maybe not moved quite so powerfully, since those comments are not usually ingeniously crafted.  My point is, despite all illusions to the contrary, there is an equal (if sometimes unseen ) consequence to the words we publish online.  It is the inevitability of language--the affect it has on others.

Here's what I think: self-expression is a beautiful thing and should be allowed, even if its results are destructive, even if its not done in the right way or for the right purposes.  But there IS a right way.  There ARE such things as right purposes.  Besides being cut to the quick myself a time or two (or hundreds), one thing that's motivated me to become more conscious and kind in my internet interactions are reminders of the basis of my Christian faith.  Here's a scripture that has been showing me some of my shortcomings, lately.  It's Philippians 2:1-8 (NIV):

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like- minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature[a] God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross.

Whoa.  "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit."  This includes speaking.  Writing.  Whatever.  This means me giving up communication as a self-centered tool, as something to be used to meet my own needs and to further the cause of me, first and foremost.  (My own needs would be getting heard, understood, validated, and "the cause of me" would be persuading people to see how right I am about everything.  I tend to write for this cause more often than I want to admit).   "Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others."  This would include listening to, understanding, and validating others before I demand those things from them.  That's opposite to my most basic instincts, which I've already laid out for you.  Then there's the last part of the passage, which exhorts Christians to be like the Christ we claim to follow.  He didn't demand that everyone see and treat Him as God (even thought that's who He naturally was), by coming to us in a lightening storm of glory, throwing His weight around everywhere.  Instead, He threw all that away and humbled Himself by becoming one of us, a human being.  Not just a human being, but one subject to the deepest rejection, lowest regard, and most shameful death.  He lowered Himself to the lowest place possible for us.  To bring us the healing, freedom, love we need in reconciliation with Himself, who is Love.  And we're asked to be like Him in the way we treat each other.  See what I mean about shortcomings?  Dismissing my right to the respect and reputation I deserve and being willing to take on shame I don't deserve in order for your needs to be met, is not something that appeals to me, quite honestly.  But think about how different our society would be if this concept ruled our interactions with each other.  Think about how different the internet would be, with everyone looking to the interests of others first.  We wouldn't have to be concerned with watching our backs and defending ourselves.  There would be no one to defend ourselves against.  We would be eating the fruit of life, rather than of death, as the efforts pouring from our own mouths and keyboards came back to us through others.  Such a community in the human race would be a miraculous marvel beyond compare.

I long for that.  I know my shortcomings disqualify me from belonging to such a utopia, but I desire to get up and try again to "be the change"  I'm desperate to see, as Shane Claiborne so actively advocates for Christians to do.  So, as I try and fail and try again to be more kind and considerate of others in the things I say, would you be kind and considerate enough to forgive me when I fall short?  If you would even be kind and considerate enough to point it out to me in a respectful and humble manner, that would be even more helpful, probably.  Thank you.  I need all the help I can get.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Articulate Listening

I have a word fetish. You don't have to know me well to know this about me. I became an English Major in college immediately, automatically, as if it were the only conceivable option. My passion to consume and produce written language in multiple forms overshadowed all other academic interests and worldly fascinations, as well as my need for a dependable career path. Sometimes I want to go back in time, grab myself by the throat, and force myself onto an easier, more clearly-marked path(one that involves earning a title or at least being "qualified" to perform the tasks of a paying job). But words had a serious grip on me then, and in a lot of ways they still do. When I hear a speaker or read a writer who has suddenly used the perfect words to pin down thoughts and feelings which have both shaken and evaded me, I want to scream my delight--I'm not exaggerating. It's like someone has finally scratched a deep, impossible itch that's been gnawing away at my brain and maybe sometimes my soul. It's that sudden flip of a light switch in a room with a mirror, and after it happens I see something about myself more clearly. I also realize that I'm not alone in that room. Someone else is seeing and naming something in me, too, and it's euphoric--that feeling of connection with myself and with someone else, that feeling of being seen, known, understood. Even if what's being said is something I didn't know I believed(something maybe that I thought I didn't), that moment of connecting with what I've found to be true, that connection over this truth with another person is incredible. It's some strange sort of relief that's hard to account for. It's some strange kind of bliss in finding that the grasping of my mind and the searching of my heart is valued, shared, understood, (in a sense) that it's right. Sound crazy? Sound unhealthy? You haven't heard the half of it.

 Over the years, some of my friends and family have told me that I'm good with words myself, and I certainly enjoy expressing myself with them. In fact, I get the same (and possibly greater) satisfaction out of writing or speaking beautiful words for others as I get from hearing them spoken for myself. That gnawing itch, deep down in my brain and soul that's satiated with well-crafted writing and speech drives me to craft my own words well, and it's all part of the same selfish desire. It's me wanting to discover and understand myself. It's me wanting others to discover, understand, and validate me. I work so hard to find the right words to make others understand me, make them agree with me, make them reinforce and applaud what I think and feel, and sometimes it works. People feel like they get something I've said, or I've said something that makes them feel like someone gets them, and I get complimented. "I just never knew you could write like that." "You're poem moved me so much." "I never thought about it like that, but you're right"--good grief! The level of gratification I get from those comments is obscene.

 No matter how much I mature or how much selfishness I shed, I'm guessing it will always feel wonderful when someone calls me articulate. (I'm human; I like being validated). As I grow older, however, and as I see more clearly the level of selfishness that drives me to perfect my own "giftings," I find that I'm growing less impressed with articulate speakers and more impressed with articulate listeners. I'm not talking about people who listen to hear themselves speak through others, as I've already described myself doing. I'm talking about people who listen to others just to understand who the other person is. The ability to discern the heart behind the meaning of the words of those reaching out for understanding (the willingness to offer this understanding to others, even on a small scale, before demanding it for oneself)is more rare, more beautiful, and can be more powerful than the ability to say things nicely. In the heat of an argument it's usually the person who extends understanding that breaks the tension in the room, not the person who's stated their case so well that they can't be refuted. In a room full of hungry people, someone needs to be willing to turn on the stove, and in a world full of lonely people looking for connection, someone needs to be willing to shut up and listen. Articulately. With discernment. With the desire to hear and understand. With the maturity to put their own validation on hold.

 Articulate listening--this is a gift I need to develop in myself.