Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Importance of Words

I've been thinking a lot lately about the importance of words.

There are a lot of words with which I tend to be very careful.  For one thing, I don't tend to swear a lot.  Part of this, of course, is due to the fact that I work with children.  (I've always thought that it was rather interesting that these words are considered to be actively harmful to kids, and I've always rather preferred the idea of teaching them how to use these words responsibly.  Still, I'm not a parent myself—nor do I ever intend to be—so, particularly in the interests of keeping my job and obtaining better work in the future, I think I'll defer to society's conventions in this case.)  But it's also largely because I feel that overusing swear words causes them to lose their power, both therapeutically speaking and for the kind of emphasis that sometimes only a really taboo word can provide.  Being careless with swearing might be an easy habit to get into, but I don't think that I'd ever really benefit from it, even if words like that coming from a face that looks as innocent as mine sometimes does have a certain amount of inherent comic value.

There are other words that I'm careful with.  Faith.  Truth.  Holiness.  Freedom.  All of these words have been misused in many ways.  Faith is used as an excuse to stop thinking, or for preventing other people from thinking.  Truth—as I understand the term, anyway—is rarely absolute, frequently subject to interpretation, and claimed by so many people, all of whom hold beliefs that contradict the beliefs of somebody else who claims with equal fervency that they are the ones who know the truth, and of course they can all back up their opinions with proof, some of which is convincing, some of which is not, and most of which could really be interpreted in more than one way.  Holiness has been used as an excuse to kill other people, ostensibly because of their beliefs (which is bad enough in and of itself, of course), but, perhaps more importantly, because they had resources or access to valuable trade routes that the aggressors wanted to claim for their own.  Freedom as a concept has been used as a reason to take people's actual freedom away (witness the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks).  The misuse of words has the potential to do real harm.

Evil and hate are also words with which I prefer to be careful.  I don't call anyone evil; that word makes it too easy to forget that they're human, too.  I have no problem with calling people's actions evil.  But calling people themselves evil makes it too easy to dehumanize them and to risk becoming as bad as I believe that their actions are.  And I don't hate anybody.  It's too exhausting; it takes too much energy to hate, and I'd rather be using my energy to do things that help rather than harm.  In the end, hate isn't worth it.

But the word with which I am perhaps the most careful is one of the most over-used and misused words in the English language.  It's a big word, for all that it only has four letters.  It means so many things.  It affects so many people.  And at certain times, and in certain places, it can even hold the power of life and death.


I use it colloquially, of course.  I don't really love the internet, or my second-generation iPod Touch, or my favourite skirt, or any of my jewellery.  Actually loving things or concepts is an alien idea to me.  Things are things.  They're useful for a while and then they're recycled or thrown away.  (You can probably guess my preference in this matter; Pagans often tend to be environmentalists to varying degrees, and I'm no exception, even if I can't always make the choices that I'd prefer to make—for example, composting is great, but it's not necessarily a wise thing to do when you live in an area with a decent-sized bear population.)  Loving things holds you back.

But in a truer sense, I almost never use the word "love."  I've written at length about this subject before, but just to recap: this is partly because I perceive loving and falling in love to be very different things—perhaps now more than ever.  To me, love isn't just a feeling—it's an action, too; it's felt and it's shown.  And there are as many kinds of love as there are ways to show it.  This wider view of what the word "love" means is good, of course, and it works for me, but it also complicates things.  There are some people in my life to whom I would very much like to say "I love you," but a certain fear of misunderstandng holds me back.  When the only forms of love that are widely acknowledged are familial love and romantic love, and when the person to whom I would like to say "I love you" isn't a known relative (besides being a member of the same species, of course), it would be easy for them to assume that I mean the emotional and hormonal mix that we refer to as "falling in love."  Only one of them would be right, and that person would assume—quite incorrectly—that I wanted to act on it though I know full well that those feelings are exceedingly unlikely to be returned.  That's not what I want.  In circumstances like this, a solid friendship with somebody I trust is wonderful enough.

Being careful with words can be difficult.  It can be maddening, especially because I don't actually think with words, and translating the concept that I'm thinking of to the most accurate word I know sometimes leads me to make odd word choices, do strange things to my spoken grammar, and even occasionally use the wrong word because it looks, sounds, or feels like the one that I really mean to say.  (I sometimes feel like at any moment, somebody will quote Inigo Montoya at me.)  But I believe that it's worth it.  After all, words have power, and they have more power than people often give them credit for.