How Powerful Language Can Create A Future That Wasn’t Going To Happen (But Must!)

Might people stumble and wander / for not knowing the right words, and get lost in their wandering…–William Stafford

For many of us, 2019 is the year of fear. A deep down, unrelenting, gnawing kind of fear that the most critical changes we need to happen in this world, aren’t going to. Democracy troubles, climate change, mass extinction, mishap-triggered nuclear conflagration, plus technology-driven hyper job destruction, are among the top items on our existential worry lists.

Not to mention the overall political instability that’s been created. After all, having masses of people losing economically has always been a recipe for disaster, separate from all the other challenges. Also if a few million refugees can shake nations all across the world, what will hundreds of millions do?

So just how deep are our troubles? Deep. And don’t even ask for all the history, facts, issues, and troubles we face in even one of these areas above. I fear my fingers can’t type that fast or that much. I get cramps just thinking about it. No, what we need is the simple, powerful leverage of language at its best and most enhanced. Words that clarify, not obscure.

Think of it this way. Language got us in this fix and language must now get us out. All change and transformation happens first in language, then only afterwards in actual behavior. The great poet, Mary Oliver said it so elegantly.

One day you finally knew what you had to do and began…

So what preceded Mary Oliver’s “finally” beginning? Let’s start with the modest but radical act of replacing 5 words that are putting us to sleep, increasing our peril and killing change, with 5 words that at least offer a fresh chance at change.

 1.) Choices Not Forces

 When we hear someone use the word “forces” as a way to describe what shapes markets, economies, costs, competition, and even politics in general, we’ll want to get down into our hound dog stance and start sniffing. For what? The truth.

And you can sniff out the truth by simply substituting the word “choice” for the word “force.” Truth is, there are no market, economy, or cost forces. There are only our human choices (and their consequences) in all these areas that serve up big bags of loveto some and provide a heaping load of tears to many others.

Poet and master wordsmith William Stafford put it this way: If you don’t know the kind of person I am / and I don’t know the kind of person you are / a pattern that others made may prevail in the world / and following the wrong god home we may miss our star…

Demagogues and authoritarians have always loved it when people were divided and screaming at one another. Paradoxically, the hidden tragedy of our times is not so much bitter partisanship, (yes, we have some of that) but rather the fact that so many people want the same things and are being frustrated. Things like wealth spread more evenly, more power for average workers, affordable healthcare, more accountable less monopolistic banks and corporations, and more not less social security. Sure, there are deeply contentious issues, but not nearly as many as those core issues that enjoy super-majority support.

Of course, as Stafford pleads, we do need to know each other more fully. Because following even one wrong godhome could unleash unimaginable destruction and sorrow. One wrong god, for example is the god of infinite growth on a finite planet. Of all the ill-advised and preposterous ideas, this has got to take the prize. This is a god that will (via climate disruption and mass extinction) make us definitely miss our star… perhaps our only star for survival.

2.) Possibility Not Problems

 Of course, we need to solve problems. No one could argue against that stance. However, when all we do is solve problems, we soon create a vicious cycle, where this year’s solutions quickly become next year’s problems.

This cycle leaves us thinking small, stranded and struggling downstream where we are daily menaced by one symptom-problem-emergency after another, while we never stop to address the deeper possibilities of real solutions that only exist far upstream where the river (and true cause) begins. After all, problems are both addictive and limiting. Addictive, because eventually, we can’t make a single move without one. And they are limiting, because the problem conversation is by definition, narrowly framed, which is what keeps us creating one disastrous unintended consequence after another.

Emily Dickinson said it like this: I dwell in Possibility / A fairer House than Prose…Yes, of course, we need the prose of problem solving, but we most certainly need the poetry of possibility as well. Problem-solving is here to stay, but we must learn to use it much more sparingly and for genuine emergencies.

3.) Circular Not Linear

 In nature, there’s no such thing as waste. Everything is used and recycled in a glorious and balanced circle. This is not contested by anyone! So whatever gave us the strange and untrue idea that such a place as “away” exists anywhere on our beautiful planet? For this unreal place called “away” is where we try to throw all the things we do not want. And since “away” was always an illusion all those things, chemicals, poisons, metals, and plastics are making there way right back into the middle of our lives and bodies. And of course, our children are even more vulnerable to this fate.

The business world calls this illusion, “Externalities” meaning things that are declared external and free. Things we don’t even need to track or count. The exhaust from our cars, for example, regards the common air we all breathe as an externality that is not to be counted. For the chemical industry, the cells in our own bodies where these chemicals eventually end up in greater and greater quantities are considered an externality. And the list goes on and on, from air to our bodies, to water, to climate itself. All the most critical things upon which we count, we by and large and insanely do not count.

The moment we toss out the fantasy word “linear” and replace it with the true word “circular,” we are on our way to actually living in the real (not fantasy) world. And that is the day a single word can begin to protect the common things for which we all depend for our very lives.

Walt Whitman put it this way, After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains.

 4.) Connected Not Separated

 The moment we feel disconnected and isolated from “ourselves,” “others,” and “the great other” we begin to act in unskillful ways. We begin to treat trees, rivers and whole forests as little more than “resources” to be used and exploited. Of course, we need resources and materials, however, we also need what Wallace Stegner described so well: Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed … We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.

We have begun to believe in our own deep and dangerous illusion that human beings are in charge of nature and can simply control it at will. We cannot. We have forgotten what Chief Seattle so wisely said all those years ago:

Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth. This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. One thing we know: our god is also your god. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator. 

 5.) Courage Not Heroics

Unhappy the land that needs heroes, said Galileo in Bertolt Brecht’s play, “Life of Galileo” But what is wrong with heroes? Nothing, except our hero fantasy, quickly removes responsibility from we common people who must do the real work. We average people must be courageous if the challenges we face are to be resolved.

Besides, the heroes aren’t really coming anyway. The Calvary is not on its way.The heroic politician will not run and be elected next term.No, it is we ourselves who are already here and must do the most difficult work we have ever done.

Poet William Stafford once said it this way in the first few lines of his stunning and beautiful poem “Allegiances,” It is time for all the heroes to go home / if they have any, time for all of us common ones / to locate ourselves by the real things / we live by.

Let’s remember this one simple thing. At the very root of the word courage is cor. It is the Latin word for heart. In early times, the word courage meant “To speak one’s mind by telling one’s heart.”

This telling of our hearts. This speaking our truth. This taking bold actions. This stance for truth and powerful language we must all now engage. It is time.

 Words From Which We Can Never Retreat

One of our great leadership thinkers, Peter Senge once said this, we confuse leadership with position. Leadership is a capacity of a human community to shape its future. Leadership is a collective. Leadership is everywhere.

We can as a community, shape our future. It is not too late. But, to be sure, it is nearly too late. We have little choice but to use this word… Hope. No, this is not just any kind of hope. It is not greeting card hope. It is not a passive or casual hope. As already described, this is also not the hope for heroes to come and save us. Rather, it is a rugged and fierce hope. It is a common folks kind of hope. It is a rag and bone shop of the heart hope.

In fact, I am afraid our kind of hope can’t even be tied to any particular outcome. That kind of hope would be too small and limited anyway. As poet, T. S.  Eliot once said, I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope / For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, / For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith / But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

Yes, we must paradoxically wait and act at the same time. We must hope and grieve as well. We must hope while being grateful for every obstacle, every difficulty, for every clear and true word that shows us the way.

Finally, these 5 simple word swaps are only a start, but they are a good start. To change them is to increase our freedom and change our fate. The old words, no matter how strong they are right now, can be shifted. They need not be our future. In fact, if we can change just these 5 words we will be on our way. For, in the end, all change and transformation is created through awareness and language. To be sure, it will require a steady, focused and deep awareness, matched with the powerful words of a beautifully enhanced language and conversations we’ve never had before, but now must.

Let’s end with the words of poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Brilliant words. Sacred words. Words that clarify the mind and touch the heart. Words that need not be changed at all: What would the world be, once bereft Of wet and wildness? Let them be left, O let them be left, wildness and wet, Long live the weeds and the wildness yet.

Photo by Adrien King on Unsplash

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