Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The use of language, and why this matters

In a political year like this one, it's hard not to get depressed about the use of language, this beautiful instrument and expression of conscious self-awareness, as it becomes a tool for obfuscation, deception, and manipulation. All of which speaks to its power.

And that ought to suggest that we best take care in how we use it. These days we fling words and phrases at one another like weapons in a war of attrition, using them to fiercely, and often violently, defend our point of view as if it was territory under assault from the enemy - so frail are our egos these days, so weak the foundations of those world views.

So I try to remember always to write with care, especially if I am putting anything up into cyberspace where it can float around and attract all sorts of karma, or dynamic energy of one kind or another.

But mostly I want the words to mean what they say, and, at their best, to open a window on the world, to offer something that actually reflects some portion of reality, maybe widening the view a bit. Given how language in this culture is being used to narrow views, or build walls and moats around various 'interest groups,' or to foment hate and anger, this seemingly small ambition takes on some greater resonance for me. At least it's my way of offering some resistance to the way in which language has become another weapon in our arsenal of cultural, social, and political fragmentation.

And so I labor over my new book, and some essays, and even a poem now and then, challenging myself all the time on my own honesty and, as Stephen Colbert might say, "truthiness" - not because I have a hold on truth but because we each have within us truth from a certain vantage point or life experience. Truth, then, is not one firm thing we hold onto, but a multitude, a milieu, of life experiences, wisdom, and insights that reflect the abundance and diversity of who we are. When it is clung to as a singular universal truth, it is no longer truthful because it no longer reflects the reality of our world, our crazy, cacophonous, tumultuous, teeming world.

I learned from my parents and ancestors a lot about how truth is compromised by how much of it we withhold, by the parts of the stories we choose to leave out, and even from outright lies and distortions - not because they were bad people, but because they were traumatized people who suffered a great deal of poverty, shame, humiliation in a culture that believes these things to be evidence of personal failings, rather than the stuff of life. Or perhaps altering the narratives took some of the sting out of their suffering.

The narratives of our lives so seldom match the perfect little moral universes we create for ourselves, but we judge one another by them in any case - and cling to them even when the evidence shows that they do not match actual life at all.

In my parents' case, in the last years of their lives, and in the face of their dying, they let a lot of the false narrative go. Didn't have the energy to hold onto it anymore. That released a lot of energy, helped make possible a whole lot of healing.

The culture could really use some of that right now. Maybe if we realized that we are creating a high potential for the death of all we know by way of our ecological crises and our insatiable thirst for all that stuff in the ground that we voraciously exploit to support this 'way of life - maybe as the signs of dying and death become more evident (like the wildfires in New Jersey, for example, or the certainty of the drying of the southwest and southeast which by mid-century will not be able to support their burgeoning populations, or the threatened remnants of a democratic political culture, and on and on) - maybe as these signs become clearer we can do what so many dying people do - come to terms with our lives, wish we had done some things differently, do some healing and release before we leave the planet.

Do we need to wait for this dying?

Which is another reason why for me writing and other art forms are so crucial now. Good writers don't wait for the dying to tell their truth. It's an act of hope that we can come to terms with who we are before we get the fatal diagnosis.

And so, I go back to my story, needing to decide what to put in, what to leave out, what matters most in it, what is essential, what can help open a few windows for a breath of fresh air, a clearer view. I remind myself each day that, while this project is important to me, it is the reader that matters - because I would like company at my window, others who can say, "Yes, I see it," something so many writers have done for me throughout my life.


  1. It seems that so much truth comes through dying. Dying to what we were, what we believed in, what we believed was true. I have had this experience several times in my life.

  2. Yes, this dying will be the hardest thing we face. The first thing is to acknowledge that - it will be hard. There will be grief, sadness, all of that. But truth is in it. Dying is the other side of the coin. Life and death are the constant. We want one without the other. We built a whole culture based on that. Now the dying inserts itself, whether we like it or not.

    The necessary letting go is also the place of release, of liberation.