Watching 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.
Imagine two men facing each other, pointing past one another. One is pointing at a tornado that is coming, and the other at a raging fire headed towards them. Each sees their own truth and is angry at the sight of the other’s hand. Each feels that the other’s hand is wrong. This may seem silly, but replace the tornado and fire with any modern issues, and the hands with words, and this scene describes how we often try to communicate.
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.
There Are No Words To Live By
This isn’t just about communication with others. We focus on, and get trapped in a net of words that we use to explain the world to ourselves. We call things right or wrong for example, according to how they compare to our definitions. Unlike mathematics, though, word formulas and definitions can never be so precise. They cannot encompass the whole truth of reality. For example, with the least effort, you can create a circumstance where stealing would be right, and helping someone wrong.
This isn’t an argument against using language or logic. It is just that both only go so far. Like a car that takes you across the country or world, they are useful, but like a car, they are only useful in certain ways, and you have to get out of them when you arrive at your various destinations. Taking a car to the lake isn’t a problem, but taking it into the lake is. This is what we do when our words and logic take us to dangerous situations.
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.