Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Power of the Tongue

"Elegant-Ugly"
- cactus blooming in my meditation garden


I was browsing through my files yesterday when 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 in 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 inherent 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)

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. 

We often think that our words "describe” some sort of objective world out there apart from us; and yet the words we use and the stories we tell do far more than describe – they form and fashion our understanding of what is real.

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, elegant and 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. 

In similar fashion if we pronounce another person to be "beautiful," or "elegant" or "sophisticated," that's what they become.  If we say they are "dumb" or call them a "thug," they become that.

Standing in the checkout line at the supermarket yesterday I heard a woman in front of me tell her friend that her nephew was “never really a very bright boy.” I actually thought that her choice of words was exceptionally irresponsible  and wondered if her nephew might have “always” been an “under-achiever” in school because his closest relatives continually referred to him as a “slow learner.”

Even our “words" about “God” have the power to create who “God” becomes for us. Talking about God as a “mighty king” or “heavenly father”  is far different from talking about “God” as a “gentle breeze” or a “tender mother” - and yet all these terms are actually used in the Bible—so the words we use have great power.

Death and life are in the power of the tongue.

In my meditation today I ask myself, Will I create a better and more beautiful world by the words I speak and 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.

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