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‘The creative and destructive power of words’

Tom Casey SJ addressed a conference at Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth on Thursday 5 November marking the 40th anniversary of the Catholic Communications Office. The conference was chaired by Audrey Carville of RTÉ and the keynote speaker was Monsignor Paul Tighe, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications in Rome. The full text of Tom’s address is below. Tom is second from left in the above photograph taken at the conference; also included are Mgr Paul Tighe, Audrey Carville, Archbishop Charles J Brown and Archbishop Eamon Martin.

Destructive Words

Have you ever noticed how people talk of winning arguments, losing arguments, demolishing arguments, attacking arguments, defending arguments? Why do we link arguments with “shooting down”, with “right on target”, with winning, losing, demolishing, attacking, and defending? Isn’t it because, without even being explicitly aware of the fact, for many of us arguments are often warlike? They are conflictual, they are battles, involving winners and losers, where we can gain or lose ground, where the reward is victory, and the big fear is of being totally wiped out. And don’t you think the many aggressive words we use when we argue are going to affect our actions as well? If you don’t believe me, insert the words “argument led to murder” in your Google Search Engine, and within 0.42 seconds, you’ll have a list of seventy-nine million, two hundred thousand results!

I’d like to reflect with you a little more about arguments, because this kind of reflection can bring us closer to the heart of what I’m talking about today: the creative and destructive power of words.

If we view arguments as wars, then they’ll involve bad-mannered back and forth comments. Sooner or later someone will take offence, and things may quickly become ugly and nasty, devolving into ad hominem attacks and the trading of insults. One party may just sue the other, and both could be left nursing grudges for life. Or at the very least, they’ll metaphorically shoot one another down in flames with high-powered rational bullets. And at the end of all this massive mutual display of testosterone-fuelled aggression, neither side will have persuaded the other, but each will have made a new enemy instead.

Words can be destructive. We all know that technology has given bullies a much wider platform through online name-calling, and we know this can emotionally destroy children and teenagers. As a child, I remember repeating the nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. Back then, I unthinkingly accepted the truth of this phrase. As Saint Paul would have put it: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.” (1 Corinthians 13: 11). Now that I’m an adult, I see how intimidating the world of childhood has become because of things like cyber-bullying. Words can be used as weapons. They can be as sharp as knives, or even sharper: the pen is mightier than the sword.

Words can cause irreparable damage. So I’ve now rewritten the second half of this nursery rhyme: “Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but words will really hurt me.” The reason words can unleash such havoc is because words are extraordinarily powerful. As the Letter of Saint James tells us: “Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze. The tongue is also a fire.” (The Letter of James 3:5-6).

Creative Words

Let’s imagine for a moment that we could change the way we visualize arguments, that we could move away from understanding arguments in terms of war, and instead view them as collaborative journeys toward the truth.

In fact, we already talk about arguments as journeys, though we don’t go so far as seeing them as collaborative journeys toward the truth. How do we grasp arguments as journeys? Well, in an argument, there is often the notion of a starting point, a road to follow, and a destination. We set out to prove something, the argument can go through various stages, and ideally has a clear step-by-step logic to it, leading to a certain conclusion. Of course we can also veer off in the wrong direction, stray from the point, lose the thread of an argument or talk in circles.

The great thing about speaking of an argument in terms of a journey is that it predisposes us to think of the progress we are making and whether we’re approaching our goal. Moreover, if we build on this foundation by additionally seeing an argument as a collaborative journey toward the truth, then we won’t be inclined to see the argument as something to win or to lose, we won’t feel impelled to attack or to defend. We won’t find ourselves driven toward aggression or domination. It will be about teamwork, and about the truth winning out, not either of the arguers. If the argument becomes bogged down, both parties will feel frustrated, since it is a collaborative journey. We’ll want to work together to find a solution. And perhaps even the term “argument” might not be the best way to describe what is happening, because it would be a matter of collaborative teamwork.

If we don’t visualize disagreements in hostile terms, we may just be humble enough not to wilt in the face of a withering ad hominem attack. I’m reminded of a saintly Jesuit priest whose humility enabled him to deftly outmanoeuvre an attack against his character and reputation.

Fr. John Hyde was born in Ballycotton, County Cork. Already an excellent student at secondary school, he was awarded the prestigious Honan Scholarship to UCC, but did not take it up, entering the Society of Jesus instead in 1927. Father Hyde began to teach theology to Irish Jesuit students when the actual professor became ill. They called upon Father Hyde as a stopgap, to fill in for a limited time. He turned out to be an excellent teacher, even though theology was not his specialty, a fact of which he was wont to remind his superiors. But he was so good that they kept him in that job for the rest of his working life. To meet him you’d never think he was such a brilliant mind, because he was a quiet, retiring, self-effacing man, someone of few words, and then they were always simple words.

Now, some of the details of this revealing little story may be inaccurate, because it’s a long time since I heard it, and Father Hyde himself died 30 years ago, in 1985. Anyhow, here’s how the story goes: Father Hyde wrote a review of a book by a well-known theologian. Since Father Hyde was a man of few words, the book review was correspondingly brief. Basically it went something like this: “the author makes important points on pages 25-28, again on pages 51-54, and finally on pages 111-115. But otherwise there is nothing of great substance in this study.”

The author was infuriated and wrote a letter to the periodical, in which he said: “how dare Father Hyde criticize my book like that when he isn’t even properly qualified to teach theology!”

Father Hyde wrote a letter of reply, addressed to the editor of the periodical. Like his review, it was anything but long-winded, and amounted to the following: “the eminent professor asserts that I am not a qualified theologian…that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to tell my superiors for the last 30 years.”

It’s evident from this story that Father Hyde did not see an argument as a war to be won or lost. He was a humble man, and he did not feel it was a loss of dignity on his part to admit the truth publicly, the fact that he was not a properly qualified theologian.

Words are so creative that in the first chapter of Genesis God speaks and the world comes into being. Now, that’s power! From the dawn of creation, God has communicated with us through words. The Word of all words is the Word of God: “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1: 1). The Prologue of John’s Gospel goes on to tell us: “Through him all things were made.” (John 1:3). It is through the creative Word of God that the world comes into being. As the Letter to the Hebrews tells us: “God…has spoken to us through the Son…through whom also he created the world.” (Hebrews 1:1-2).

Jesus is not simply a Word of God. Everything was created not through any words, but through the Word, the Logos, who is the Son, and in the Spirit who is Love. Jesus Christ is the Word of God: this is a clear sign of how important words are. Words are creative because of the Word.

The unique overflowing, sparkling, self-giving, life-giving Divine Word is mirrored in myriad ways in our life-giving human words. The 19th century English Jesuit poet who died in Dublin, Gerard Manley Hopkins, strove to capture the sheer “thisness” of things, their unique God-given energy. In the sonnet often called “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” (from May 1877) Hopkins wrote:

“For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

When we speak creative words, it is as though Christ were really speaking in us, playing in us to the Father, with such radiant beauty and dynamic energy that it makes (as Hopkins would put it), “kingfishers catch fire” or “dragonflies draw flame”.

The gift of speech is the most useful gift that God has given us. With this gift, we can turn to God in praise and thanksgiving, we can make God known and loved to those around us; we can reassure them, raise their spirits, and express our affection for them.

The Challenge

How can we use this amazing gift for the good? The answer isn’t self-evident. Our parents and our teachers taught us how to speak, how to recite the alphabet, they explained the rules of grammar, and showed us how to put sentences together. But they did not say much about the power of words.

The Book of Proverbs tells us that: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18: 21). In case this sentence from Scripture sounds far-fetched or remote, here are two concrete examples. In countries where the death penalty still exists, the words of a judge can result in the execution of an accused person. Later the convicted person may be shown clemency through the words of a president or head of state. On the other hand, a doctor can speak life-giving words, by suggesting surgery that might cure someone with a terminal illness. Alternatively a physician might propose that someone get their affairs in order.

But words do not just bring physical death or life. They can also kill the soul, or make it blossom like a flower. Someone can speak words that have the power to kill your dream, or to kill a relationship, words like, “You’ll never amount to anything!” and “you’re useless”. Yet words can also transform your life, such as the three words, “I love you.”

How can we improve our words? The example of our confrontational way of viewing arguments shows that we are often not aware of how loaded are the words and images we use. Our words carry a whole worldview, and like an iceberg, most of it is under the surface, because there are all sorts of hidden images and assumptions underlying the words we actually use. These images and assumptions shape our feelings, our attitudes, and our actions, which in turn shape our habits, our characters, and even our destinies. Sure, there is the conscious level where we are aware of our words, but there is also the level where there is so much that we don’t see and recognize, but which still affects us profoundly.

For instance, some people, almost unknown to themselves, see love as a form of madness or a kind of magic. This notion of love is reflected in many popular songs. Let me give you some famous examples from the last 80 years or so: Judy Garland singing “I’m Just Wild About Harry” in 1939. Dinah Washington’s wonderful 1952 recording of the Noel Coward song “Mad about the Boy”. The First Lady of Song and Queen of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, and her 1956 version of the Rodgers and Hart song “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”. Country singer Patsy Cline’s signature song from 1961, “Crazy”. The legendary soul singer Nina Simone singing “I put a spell on you” in 1965. The 1970 classic from Van Morrison, “Crazy Love”. Queen’s hit from 1980, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” or their song from 1986, “A Kind of Magic”. The hit from 1989, “She Drives Me Crazy”, sung by the Fine Young Cannibals. Coldplay’s big hit from last year, “Magic”, which has the line, “I call it magic when I’m with you”.

From one point of view, it can be exhilarating to see love as bewitching and insane. But the problem with seeing love predominantly or exclusively as magic or madness is that when loves wanes, you won’t be inclined to work in order to bring it back. Why? Because you cannot produce madness or magic through sheer effort: instead it is something overwhelming, uncontrollable and largely unbidden (except if we are speaking of the magic learned by a magician). And when such magical or crazy love leaves us, we might just resign ourselves to the notion that the magic has worn off, and succumb to extreme grief and depression.

Our words, and the images and metaphors they contain, are shaping how we see things, and the way we live. They are words we have absorbed, words we take for granted, but words we need to question. I gave this talk the title “The Creative and Destructive Power of Words”, because words are both the problem and the solution, words are where we are wounded but they are also the way to healing. Words can and do limit us, but words can also lift us up to bigger hopes and more generous possibilities.

Who is speaking my life for me? Whose words am I using? Take the example of the radio. Whenever I listen to the radio, I hear myself and other Irish people described as taxpayers, workers, students, commuters, citizens, consumers, native-born or immigrants, healthy, sick, young, old, sports fans, music lovers, married, single, homeowners, drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, filmgoers… and so on.

But I never recall myself or fellow Irishmen and women being described on mainstream radio as children of God or as immortal (apart from the limited context of occasional niche programmes such as broadcasted radio Masses). We rarely hear words in public discourse that do justice to our true depth, the kinds of words I find in the best-selling Irish writer of all time, who by the way is not James Joyce or Maeve Binchy, but C.S. Lewis.

This Belfast-born writer who died the same day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated (22 November 1963) gave a magnificent sermon in the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Oxford on June 8th, 1941. In the darkness of World War II, he introduced a shaft of light through speaking in a majestic manner about the wonder of being truly human. His sermon was called “The Weight of Glory”. Allow me to read out just two extracts:

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you may talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.”

C.S. Lewis’s words about the greatness of human beings – “there are no ordinary people” – as he puts it, reminds me of when Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge (formerly known as Kate Middleton), was pregnant, first with her son George, and then with her daughter Charlotte.

To the best of my knowledge, neither of those children, while in the womb of the Duchess of Cambridge, was ever called by the media a “fetus” or her “property” or “possession” or “less than human” or a “non-person”. Instead, each of them was regularly called a “future monarch”.

During both of her pregnancies, the Duchess of Cambridge suffered from, hyperemesis gravidarum, a severe morning sickness. And I cannot remember anyone wondering would she have an abortion because of this, although research in the UK earlier this year showed that 10% of British women who suffer from this same sickness have abortions because of it.

Moreover, it seems to me that it is precisely because of the words used to describe these two children while they were still in the womb – “future monarchs” – that the possibility of abortion was never raised in relation to them. The words we use to describe people truly affect the way we treat them. But the truth is that each one of us is a monarch. It is not just the prerogative of royal families. We are all the children of God.

We need to surprise ourselves and others with creative words that connect us to our greatest hopes and desires. We need words that open us up to the unvisited layers of our own humanity. We need to give less “airtime” to words that trivialize our lives, that shrink our very selves.

Certainly changing our words won’t solve everything. We also need to change the ways we behave, we must have laws that protect all vulnerable people, and institutions that work in their favour. Changing our words is only the first step on a collaborative journey toward the truth of who we are.

However, it would be shortsighted to suppose that taking this first step – that is, changing our words for the better – is merely a matter of developing better communication skills. Such skills are undoubtedly valuable, but they only go so far, not far enough. It’s not simply a question of modifying our vocabulary. There are no quick fixes. Why? Because the cause of our negative words is not a surface or superficial cause. The cause is in our hearts.

Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 6, verse 45: “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of the evil treasure of his heart produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” Our words reveal what is in our hearts. God must cleanse our hearts first. Matthew 23: 26 – “first cleanse the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean.”

We need to learn to talk as though it were for the first time – all over again. Jesus came to save us. And a vital part of being saved is that our words need to be redeemed – just as much as the rest of us. We need divine help to change our way of speaking and the content of what we say. We need to ask the Word who is God to transform our human words into healing words. Graced words, inspired by the Word who is God, can help us to see the world in a new way.

I’d like to propose three creative “languages” corresponding to the three tenses of every human life: the past, the present, and the future. We could call these three languages the Emmaus language, the Evangelical language, and the Easter language.

The Emmaus language teaches us to look at our past in a positive way, to discover seeds of peace where we once only found grounds for fear. In the story from the Gospel of Luke that unfolds on the road to Emmaus, the two disciples first share with an unknown stranger (who is in fact Jesus) the disappointment that weighs upon them, and he then helps them to reframe their past in a new light. Jesus does not force them to ignore their wounds, but patiently listens to their struggles. This story of the disciples on the road demonstrates that the Emmaus language is not about the magic of instantaneous transformation. We must go through a healing process, we must first unburden ourselves of the wounds of the past, before we can arrive at speaking about our past with graced words.

The Evangelical language helps us to live in a new way in the “now”. As you know, the word “evangelical” comes from the Greek word evangelion, which means good (eu) message (angelion). It helps us describe others as they really are: the children of God. If we can make the leap of faith that enables us to see God in our neighbours, and in the events unfolding in our lives, we will find it much easier to speak words of “good news” to them.

The third language, the Easter language, helps us hope that despite signs of decay and death, our ultimate future is life in all its abundance. The Easter language invites us not to be afraid, because God whispers words of loving hope in our hearts. The future belongs to God, and nothing can come between us and God’s love in Christ Jesus Our Lord. And so, as we face the future, the Easter language teaches us to speak words that are bold and daring.

Renewing our ways of speaking about the three tenses of our lives will enable us to discern new openings in our past, our present, and our future. By ourselves, we cannot learn this liberating language. But if we allow ourselves to be graced by “God-words”, our hearts will burn within us.

Finally, as a way of cultivating good thoughts and creative words, I’d like to propose the notion of a “Sabbath space”. The Sabbath is not a day of work nor is it a day of frenetic activity. It is not a day when we earn money or acquire things. It is a day to receive, to become aware that life is a gift. It is a day to take a holiday from drivenness – indeed, the word “holiday” comes from “holy day”. Entering the Sabbath space is opening ourselves to where we come from (God), who we are (children of God) and where we’re going (our immortal destiny). It is opening ourselves to reality in the most expansive and generous way possible.

We need a Sabbath space, not just once a week, but at least once a day as well. It is a time of stillness, of silence, of listening, of being offline, of fasting from our own words. It is a time of receiving, not of achieving. It is not about grasping things, but allowing ourselves to be grasped by the wonder of everything. It’s a time of letting go, of no longer trying to figure out what we can get from others and from the world. It’s a time of prayer.

The Pulitzer prize-winning poet Mary Oliver expresses it well in her poem “Praying”:

“this isn’t / a contest but the doorway / into thanks, and a silence in which / another voice may speak.”

The Sabbath space is about celebrating God and the goodness of God and God’s gifts to us, for their own sake, and not in order to get a reward, not to get something out of doing it.

And it’s from immersing ourselves regularly and repeatedly in that receptive stillness that we receive the grace to speak in a creative and upbuilding way. All the best sounds emerge from a deep well of silence, a well that has been washed clean of internal chatter as well as external words. It’s only from the depth of this “decluttered” space of silence that we begin to notice how much of what we had planned to say doesn’t really need to be said at all.

Tom Casey SJ