Why does one of the simplest spoken phrases—“I love you”—mean so much to us? Why are we angered or hurt when someone says “I hate you”?
The answer is because words matter. Words embody meaning. While written language, in the grand scope of human evolution, is a relatively recent invention, spoken language is, perhaps, the distinctive that separates people from animals.
We think in language. Language is, essentially, a set of arbitrary phonemes (the smallest denominator of sound units that have meaning) combined in various ways to convey meaning. Language is, at its core, a set of symbols that stand in for other things. Language summons meaning present in ineffable places and gives it shape—it can describe what otherwise cannot be apprehended–morality, justice, mercy.
But language does more than represent some sort of external reality. Language, to some degree, calls reality into existence. I can describe things that are not “real” using language, such as dragons and wizards. I can reduce a person from dignity to shame merely by cracking the whip of unmerited diatribe “you piece of shit!”.
With risk of sounding cliché, I will point out that God spoke the universe into being. His words ordered chaos and established dominion. The act of creation is an act of speech. The corollary is also true. Speech can destroy. In one sense, then, the life of the Christian is devoted to choosing words of creation over words of destruction so as to enact the Jesus Creed: love God; love the Other.
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I am not that big of a fan of taking the Bible, quoting it as a bludgeon, and leaving people bleeding and dazed, but sometimes the Bible does that without anyone’s help at all.
Take Ephesians 4:29: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
If you are like me, then you are constantly sarcastic. You constantly make comments that tear at other people for the sake of a laugh. And then, suppose, you stumble across this passage in your daily readings. How might you react?
Throwing the Bible across the room seems like a pretty decent response—which is why I did it. Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t room for satire, for appropriate use of diatribe, or for taking horrible ideas, or even people, and naming them as horrible—if we can’t do that, then we have to throw out the Hebrew prophets and Jesus himself, for Christ’s sake!
What I am affirming, however, is that our default position should be to speak creatively rather than to speak destructively, and, when it is appropriate to destroy (or deconstruct) we do so with the purpose of tearing down so as to create.
As Kyle Lake said before he died, “The critic’s chair is and has always been the safest seat in the house because the critic defines himself by what he is not. It is an entirely different way to live when you seek to create and re-create, affirm and reaffirm.”
You see, it’s really a heart problem.
As Donald Miller points out, we live as if we are in a lifeboat that is sinking. We have got to convince everyone else to not throw us into the shark infested waters and to, instead, throw someone else in. Rather than expound on that myself, I will let stand-up comedian and, in my estimation, prophet Brian Regan speak.
You might be thinking to yourself, “Self, that is all fine and dandy, but what does this specifically have to do with words?”
Here is your answer:
“I’d be willing to bet that a good number of the hateful and destructive sentences that still ring in our heads were followed by some variation of a grossly ineffective, “I was just joking.” Our words go on and on, with consequences we can’t measure, with reverberations beyond our control. Making our words do the right things, making them into a means for caring for one another, often involves stopping before we start or confessing we didn’t know what we were saying, that our words outran our limited wisdom.” -David Dark (from his book The Sacredness of Questioning Everything)
Or, to put it even more bluntly:
“I often use sarcasm as the justification to cover my true feelings. This is not okay.” -Amanda Pavlik
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So what do we do about it?
My answer: creatively re-imagine the way we use language. Build up instead of tear down.
Or, as David Dark puts it:
“Language, after all, isn’t just a tool for communication. Our language is, to put it strangely, our “lifeworld.” And the limits of out language are, in some sense, the limits of our lifeworld. When out language is added to with a better way of putting things, we are expanding our lifeworld. We call this better way poetry. The poetic isn’t the fancy stuff or the words the pretentious depend on to sound deep. Poetry is how our lifeworlds are made new. Poetry frees our speech and loosens our lips and our strangled imaginations. Poetry is called poetry because people decided to testify concerning the power of certain arrangements of words. They testified by calling these words, these testimonies, poetry.”