Thursday, June 2, 2011

No Words To Live By

As The Rest Come To My HeartWatching the news the other day, it occurred to me that people who have "words to live by" often begin to attack and even kill others. I thought back to my own angry youth, when I could easily use words to justify violent thoughts which might have become violent actions. Words are tools, and yet it seems that they can be more dangerous than gunpowder. We point past each other with our words, arguing as though we are looking at the same facts and experiences. We want to prove our words are the right ones, instead of learning to look at what the other's words are pointing at. Words are seductive, and for all their undeniable usefulness, they also can lead us away from understanding when we focus on them, when we make them more important than the truth they are meant to point at.

Can having words to live by be dangerous, though? Absolutely. I once heard an otherwise compassionate person say he was against animal cruelty laws because he couldn't find a logical and defensible set of words to defend them. If he saw a new machine, would he refuse to believe it existed until he could explain it and describe it? Reality, and the reality of right and wrong exist outside of words - they are not the words themselves.



I watched a man say on the evening news that we have the right to drop a nuclear bomb on Iraq, and that we should. As he explained why, you could see that whatever compassionate impulses he had, they were over-ruled by his total allegiance to his words, logic, and where these take him. It never occurred to him that maybe there is truth outside of his words and logic.

It's great to have guidelines, like "don't lie," or "we have the right to defend ourselves." It is even better to remember that these rules will someday fail us, and we will have to make new ones. Words are just tools. There are words to die by, but there are no words to live by.