“A word is dead when it is said some say. I say, it just begins to live that day.”
~ Emily Dickinson
When I was a kid, we had a saying on the playground which you invoked if someone said something hurtful. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. Ok, names would never break bones, but shit yes, they would hurt. I thought this saying was considered true by those who knew more than me, so I thought I was deficient in some way, too sensitive, too wound-able. It was only much later that I realized the basic untruth of this schoolyard mantra, this attempt at self-protection.
The fact that negative words stick deeper and harder than positive words is part of our human inheritance. Compliments usually die quickly, if we manage to take them in at all; criticisms or words that cause harm (even unintentionally ) can last a lifetime. We are the descendants of those who had this thing science now calls negativity bias. Negativity bias means that bad news is weighted more heavily than good news by our brain. Our ancestors survived because of negativity bias which helped them move swiftly to self protection. Not a self-protection of their feelings but rather of their very physical existence. That well-burnished survival instinct to quickly notice the bad remains genetically with us, their descendants. Only, most days there are no sticks and stones or tigers. There are just words. And our brain takes them in very deeply.
My father thought that actions, not words, were what mattered. I understand this notion. That some people “just talk” and that when push comes to shove (now there’s an interesting phrase), what matters is what people do. Contrasted with physical action, words can pale, may even be seen as bullshit —blah blah blah blah blah blah. However my father failed to understand how using words, especially using critical words and not using encouraging, loving words, could be an action all on its own.
The Buddha put both Right Speech and Right Action on his list of the Eight-fold Noble Path. He saw how important speech was and the harm that unwise speech can do. He offered guidelines. But Right Speech is not an entirely separate category from Right Action. Right Speech IS Right Action. And it is also true that there are times that Right Action does not require any speech. And… there are times it does.
On another word front, for women in particular, the ability to use the word NO is powerful and important. Having good boundaries and setting them and being clear about them. But we don’t want to hurt feelings. We want to please. So we don’t say NO, even when that is exactly the word that fits our feelings. Instead we say I’m sorry and excuse me, sometimes in one phrase Excuse me, I’m sorry. Knowing how to say I’m sorry in an appropriate moment is a powerful two word phrase we should all have handy… for the appropriate moment.
There’s also learning enough vocabulary to be able to use words that accurately describe thoughts and feelings, and being willing to ask for clarification when we don’t understand what we’re hearing.
Regarding expletives, a couple of years ago I tried out using them frequently, emulating some of my favorite authors, trying for boldness, but then I saw how I was using them in place of figuring out and speaking out my actual feelings and thoughts. So I cut back. I admire the women, mostly younger — Cheryl Strayed, Lena Dunham, and others — who are unafraid of others’ criticisms and are able to successfully use a wide range of vocabulary — from proper English to colloquial to sailor’s English. I feel enlivened by their freedom to choose and use whatever words they want to, but also by their eloquence in using words to represent complex emotional and philosophical ideas in very down-to-earth and accessible ways.
Certainly our current government understands the power of words, as it moves on all fronts to eviscerate meaning and to silence dissent and opposition — at the voting booth and in Congress. Also by threatening to criminalize protests, by threatening lawsuits against the most respected journalistic institutions in our country, and by lying and spreading these lies so widely that many people either believe the lies, or feel they can no longer trust words, any words.
If we can not agree on which sources of information are basically truthful in our society, where is the basis or common ground for discussion, debate, and compromise? How can we work, live, and thrive together? This underlying question is part of what is really frightening about our current situation.
Retired UC Berkeley professor of Linguistics and Cognitive Science, George Lakoff recently wrote a really interesting article about the underlying values people hold that create an unconscious bias. He wrote that for decades the Republican Party has been extremely effective in using metaphors to manipulate the thinking (and votes) of millions of people whose real life interests are not represented by the Republican Party.
Recently I listened to a profoundly interesting interview Krista Tippet conducted at On Being with Lyndsey Stonebridge, Hannah Arendt scholar and Professor of Literature and History at the University of East Anglia in Norfolk, England. Professor Stonebridge discussed Arendt’s ideas on the importance of having an ongoing inner dialogue as part of an understanding of what it means to be a human being.
Stonebridge quoted (or paraphrased) Arendt as saying: “If you can’t have the inner dialogue, then you can’t speak and act with others either.” She said “The banality of evil IS the inability to hear another voice (whether it’s a dissenting voice within yourself or someone’s else’s)”.
It’s not easy figuring out how to use words honestly, effectively, with kindness, and without causing harm. According to non-violent communication teacher Marshall Rosenberg, our American language doesn’t lend itself to these qualities.
Personally I long for enlightening and enlivening conversations. When I have one I feel deeply soul-satisfied and happy. Still, I am endlessly gobsmacked by the difficulty in achieving this. How easily I feel mis-understood; how hard it is to say simply and clearly what is most important to me in any given moment. How often I don’t feel I’ve been clear (from the response I get), or that I have actually made matters worse, despite my best intentions. I know I’m not alone in this. We all hear and see and experience words and life through the filters of our own conditioned existence. And perhaps listening is even more difficult than speaking!
Despite all that, I still think the best way to work against the TrumpFox coup d’etat of our nation’s ability to think clearly is by each of us developing our own capacity with words, to find words that are true (for our self), to practice expressing them, realizing we’ll make mistakes, saying I’m sorry when necessary, not giving up, and listening better!
I feel so lucky to know (and/or know of) so many wise women and men who reflect deeply, who value living a life of service, truth, kindness and compassion and who speak with clear, confident and kind voices. Allison Post, healer, author, wise woman, Thanissara, spiritual guide, activist, and author. Emily Dickinson. Kamala Harris. Tara Brach. Sally Yates. Sheryl Sandberg. Rebecca Solnit. The Dalai Lama. So many more. Reading or listening to their words and stories, worlds are revealed. And I feel so much less alone and determined to continue my own writing and speaking practice.