Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Power of Words

"Beauty or Beast?"

Yesterday I came across a fascinating article in the magazine Parabola about the power of "words" in the Hebrew tradition:

The positive potential of speech is revealed in Jewish thought in the most dramatic way. In the Hebrew scripture, the very creation of the world and everything in it was accomplished by the use of words alone. - And God said, 'let there be light' and there was light.

This "creation of the world" story on the Hebrew scripture does far more than explain how a heavenly being magically created the universe; it is a story that reflects a deep wisdom held by the ancient  Hebrew people who understood the power of words - a word can create and a word can destroy. 

One Hebrew proverb states: 

Death and life are in the power of the tongue.
(Proverbs 18:21)

One other proverb:

He who guards his mouth preserves his life.
(Proverbs 13:3)

I find this ancient wisdom about language so interesting because it pretty much reflects much of the contemporary "postmodern" understanding of how, rather than referring to reality, the words we use create our realities. 

I've been looking at the cactus in my garden this morning. Cacti are interesting because they are pretty ugly and if you brush up next to them your body will be pierced with a bunch of nasty thorny spikes that are very hard to remove. At the same time, cacti flowers are exceptionally beautiful and even exotic. If I call the cactus "beautiful," it's like saying, "let it be beautiful." and it becomes beautiful.  If I call it "nasty or a horrible," it becomes ugly. The words create the reality. 

If we say someone is "beautiful," or "elegant" or "sophisticated," that's what they become.  If we say they are "dumb" or call them a "thug," they become that. Words have power to create and words have power to destroy. "Death and life are in the power of the tongue."

The desert where I live is a quiet and even silent place. They say that "desert people" don't 'use a whole lot of words, and I think that's probably true. When I think of my life nowadays and compare it to my earlier years, I use far less words in my everyday life.  Maybe that's why I have come to a much deeper appreciation of the words I use.  Since I use them more sparingly, I use them more carefully. 

Words have great power, and words create realty. Will I create a better and more beautiful world by the words I speak or write, or will I pollute, destroy and tear apart the world by the words I use?

The sentiments of a Hebrew psalm are my mantra for this day:

Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth,
Keep watch over the door of my lips.


  1. Something I need to think about. Let my words be few is the prayer of the day. Something to practice.