The Weight of Words

A series of columns exploring wisdom and where we find it.

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I take it as an elemental truth of life that words matter. This is so plain that we can ignore it a thousand times a day. The words we use shape how we understand ourselves, how we interpret the world, how we treat others. Words make worlds.

We chose too small a word in the decade of my birth—tolerance—to make the world we want to live in now. We opened to the racial difference that had been there all along, separate but equal, and to a new infusion of religions, ethnicities, and values. But tolerance doesn’t welcome. It allows, endures, indulges. In the medical lexicon, it is about the limits of thriving in an unfavorable environment. Tolerance was a baby step to make pluralism possible, and pluralism, like every ism, holds an illusion of control. It doesn’t ask us to care for the stranger. It doesn’t even invite us to know each other, to be curious, to be open to be moved or surprised by each other.

Here are some words I love, words that describe presence rather than means towards an end: nourishing, edifying, redemptive; courageous, generous, winsome; adventurous, curious, tender. I began my professional life as a journalist dealing in words the twentieth century favored: crisis, containment, realpolitik. Along the way in that era and beyond it, we reserved some of the other words we need the most for sidebars to the news. They fell into disrepair and cliché. Peace is strangely divisive. Justice is somehow partisan. I’m unmoved when we “celebrate diversity” by putting it up on a pedestal and avoiding its messiness and its depths. I intermingle the language of common life with public life because in recent generations we’ve collapsed our imagination about public life to be too narrowly about political life. I always rush to add qualifiers when I use the word civility—words like muscular or adventurous—because it can otherwise sound too nice, polite, and tame.

Of course all words are just containers on some level, but that is really the point. The connection between words and meanings resembles the symbiosis between religion and spirituality. Words are crafted by human beings, wielded by human beings. They take on all of our flaws and frailties. They diminish or embolden the truths they arose to carry. We drop and break them sometimes. We renew them, again and again.

I know it is possible to speak about our deepest passions and convictions in a way that opens imaginations rather than shuts them down. The world right now needs the most vivid, transformative universe of words that you and I can muster. And we can begin immediately to start having the conversations we want to be hearing, and telling the story of our time anew. 

Excerpted from BECOMING WISE by Krista Tippett. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright (c) Krista Tippett, 2016.

To hear my weekly conversations with scientists, philosophers, artists and others, visit OnBeing.org, or listen to On Being on your local public radio station, or wherever you get your podcasts. My book Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living is available now in paperback. And you might also enjoy – and join in – On Being’s Civil Conversations Project.

Wisdom

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