Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
May 2012 - Volume 12, No. 5
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Words Are Cheap, Or....

Many years ago, I heard a radio interview of a man who told of flying across our country seated next to a man from then Communist Eastern Europe. The Eastern European commented, “When someone in my country writes a letter to the editor criticizing the government, he goes to prison. In your country (the US) when someone writes a letter to the editor of a newspaper criticizing the government, nobody pays attention.” 

Which is better? We champion and defend a citizen’s right to the freedom of speech - and may we never stop. But when that freedom makes speech so easy, then few people pay any attention. It seems these days, our greatest use of this freedom is in marketing, using speech to influence people to go out and buy things. 

What is language, but either (a) the repetition of the words someone else has spoken - passing on the experience and thoughts of others, or (b) the end result of an inner process of translating one’s own raw experience into the language of thought, and then translating that inner language into the vocalized syntax of a shared language. An audience may then know and further share the inner experience of the speaker.  

The written word is an additional translation, and hence usually a more refined representation of the original raw experience. Most of us know the increased focus and concentration called upon to put our thoughts into written form. It’s usually easier to telephone someone than to write a letter to them. The written word is usually more elegant and thoughtfully formed. That’s why for millennia, laws were always written (i.e. contained in a ‘book’).

The Value of Words

But what is the value of the words? Often the value of words is determined by how much they cost. A Hallmark card costs less than the focused efforts of a lover to compose in his or her own words a representation of the raw experience of the lover’s heart. The value of the speech critical of a dictatorship is much higher than the corresponding value of speech where people are free to say anything. The former may cost you your life, the latter costs you practically nothing.  

I find this when couples begin to really talk to each other. The value of the interaction increases in proportion to the vulnerability of the speaker, as well as the listener. It’s that increased cost that builds or rebuilds marriages. 

The Power of Words

Traditionally, words are powerful. In our Judaeo Christian Islamic heritage, the very act of Creation was when “God spoke.” The ‘chaos’ is ‘ordered’ when the Divine Word is spoken into it. The careful reassuring words of a parent to a frightened child, again bring order into the chaos of the child’s immediate experience. How often does a parent pray for just the right words to bring the blessings of comfort to the child? The destructive language of an angry parent or spouse can fill dozens hours of therapy in the work of disengaging from its poison.

Prayer, or words spoken into the Divine Silence can be considered as very powerful. I know about the prayer power of the silent hunger of the heart. Some will say there’s a higher efficacy (getting to the Ear of God) in the spoken prayer. Of even greater delight to the Divine Ear is the prayer that is sung. I know the power of all three, and I know how different my experience is in each. There is the prayer that is accompanied by smoke or incense - aromatics which are pleasing to the world of Spirit, and hence get a ‘better‘ hearing. One friend, a smoker, upon learning that smoke is a prayer vehicle for indigenous peoples, has subsequently greatly increased her prayer life. She says a prayer each time she lights up.

My father was a man of few words, but each word he spoke was filled with value. He was a Methodist preacher, and when I was  young, we, his family, would often listen carefully to his Sunday morning sermon to discern what he was thinking about events in our family life. It was in code of course, for nobody else in the congregation ‘heard‘ those private messages to us. He was careful with his words. After his death my mother once commented that it was a curse at times that he was ‘always right.‘ It’s not that he insisted on being right, he would never do that. It’s just than in the long run, as a very wise and thoughtful man, he just was always right. I was fortunate to grow up ‘at his feet’ and cherished our many conversations. 

The Care-full Use of Words

And so I challenge you, my best beloved reader (I always loved Rudyard Kipling for those words), to use great care with your language. Yes, we live in a culture where words are cheap, and can end up having little or no value. Nobody may even care to listen. Or they are used to convey cheap experience - listen to local nightly news, or a ‘reality’ TV show. Or they are used to ‘sell things.’ Even our President, after 9/11 told us to go out and buy things. Maintaining the economy seems the best answer to fear and chaos. (The other best answer, of course, is to go to war.) But worse than having ‘little or no value’ is when words are used to bring out the worst in us. (This political year 2012 may stand out as a hallmark of this dark side of verbal power.)

Above I introduced the sequence (translations) of verbal expression as raw experience becoming the inner language of thought, becoming the public (shared, interpersonal) language of shared experience.  I need to add one additional inner ‘translation’. I want to insert, before the spoken words, the question, “will the sharing of these thoughts and/or feelings benefit the greater good of those who will hear me?”

To reiterate:  (I’m getting pretty technical here, so you might want to skip this.)

(1) Raw experience has value in that it is a human experience, waiting for a process or permission to be shared.

(2) The translation of raw experience into thought (language) is the beginning of a process for social exchange. Experience (raw personal) becomes language (ordered personal to raw social).

(3) Before we share (speak) we do an inner utility check - “Will the sharing of these thoughts enhance the greater good?” This could mean bringing a personal honesty and vulnerability to personal and problem solving relationships. It could mean the enhancement of the esteem of children and other persons who share our society. It could mean the careful balancing of language to defuse a dangerous conflict. In a sense it is the moral check of what we are about to speak.

(4)  Then we speak. Each of us has a unique voice, and it is good that we exercise it, tuning it for the greater good. We speak to share ourselves, and to build a better society.  

In a culture that doesn’t value words, it’s even more up to us to add our own value to the words we speak.  

So, with the words you speak:

 - Speak boldly and care-fully from your heart.

 - Each word that we speak, can actually resonate through the universe for many years.

 - Filter your speech to reduce harm to others, especially those most vulnerable.

 - Honor your own voice and let it be heard.

 - Build a better world, especially for those who will follow us.

Yes, words can be cheap, demeaning the experience of life.

And words can do much damage.

And words, care-fully used, can also heal a broken world.

I know, I’ve been in all three places.

Pay attention.

Comments (3)

  • It often bothers me when I feel the speaker didn’t consider ~~ “Will the sharing of these thoughts enhance the greater good?”

    Good for us all to remember

    — Alice, 5/3/2012
  • Good one Wills. Sometimes hard to do. I try to remember that a soft voice turneth away wrath. Sometimes it
    even works. Thanks for your reminder.

    — Jeane, 5/8/2012
  • Just want to say how much I look forward to your newsletter. Thank you!

    — Deborah, 5/9/2012

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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