Tom Wolfe’s new book disputes that language is a product of evolution. In fact, he questions the Big Bang and evolution altogether, although an atheist.
This notion became fodder for my morning walk. It occurred to me that language was indeed an advantageous evolutionary adaptation. Now we could say what we wanted and needed, instead of using brute force or devious machinations to seize it. Negotiation and compromise became possible; feelings and reason could be expressed; and wisdom, a combination of feelings and reason and inspiration, could be transmitted.
In the present American culture and perhaps in other contemporary cultures, it’s a challenge to remember the gift of words when words are used as weapons (weaponized, so to speak) and coming together in compromise is considered weakness. In a society in which so many of us, from our leadership to our electorate, need to be reminded to use our “inside voices,” it’s a challenge to believe words can be solutions rather than salvos.
These thoughts come to me as I also reflect on a recent conversation in the opinion pages of the newspaper about the need or benefit of learning longhand alongside print or type. Some legislators feel “the American way of life” is threatened by educators who believe script is optional, perhaps unnecessary. While not going that far, a teacher’s letter observed that when students wrote longhand, they expressed themselves more personally. The poem in last week’s post I first wrote in longhand, so I understand that point of view.
Makes me think of the poet Lord Byron’s pen, or quill. He thought of it as an extension of himself. In seminary, a dorm mate asked to borrow my typewriter, and though I lent it to him, I realized I felt the same way about it. As I told another student, “It was as if he asked to borrow my underwear,” to which the student replied with a laugh, “He did borrow my underwear!”
Henri Nouwen’s books are highly regarded, I believe, because he wrote so personally. And I realize the intimacy of his spiritual writing may have been partly because he wrote all of his books in a graceful longhand, having another transcribe them on a typewriter or computer.
Cursive writing keeps your hand continuously on the paper, unlike printing or typing, so there’s a unity that has both spiritual and sensual elements, like lovemaking.
When I was in high school, another student “marveled” (his word) that I viewed all my writing as a gift from God. And to this day, I may complete a piece and “marvel” that it came out of “me.” I still believe that it is a gracious gift, this ability to put things in words, and I doubt it comes only from “me” (whatever “me” is), but something that comes from a deeper well, not mine alone.
Words helped us conceive and imagine God, so it’s not by chance that Judaism and Christianity reversed that order, and worshiped a God who called the world into being with mere words (logoi, plural of logos) in the first case and in the second, a God whose Word (Logos) became flesh and dwelt among us. In Judaism, we learned and lived the words of the mitzvah (duties, good deeds), and in Christianity, the Spirit gave us the words to proclaim God’s activity in the world.
I worry, in myself as a writer, that words are not deeds, though my readers often beg to differ. Like Henri and his many words, I take comfort in the words of John of the Ladder:
I found some consolation and encouragement in the words of one of the most stern ascetics, the seventh-century John of the Ladder, who lived for forty years a solitary life at Mount Sinai. In his chapter on discernment, step 26 of his spiritual ladder, he writes: “If some are still dominated by their former bad habits, and yet can teach by mere words, let them teach…For perhaps, being put to shame by their own words, they will eventually begin to practice what they teach” (Reaching Out, 9).
And these further words of Henri’s:
When we think about the people who have given us hope and have increased the strength of our soul, we might discover that they were not the advice givers, warners, or moralists, but the few who were able to articulate in words and actions the human condition in which we participate and who encourage us to face the realities of life (Reaching Out, 43).
To paraphrase one seeking healing from Jesus, “Only say the words and I shall be healed.”
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