When I realize something, I often look back and see a path connecting things I previously knew so that my realization becomes at once revelatory and obvious. Several neurons in my brain rush to meet each other and then slow as they approach, realize that they have been neighbors all this time and then conclude with a sheepish “wazzup.” Nonetheless, I fantasize that this consistency belies a deeper profound significance and that my unlocking of it has unleashed a universal truth. The trailer for my imagined biography depicts my purchase of a seamless robe and my holding forth on the trading floor of the Chicago Commodity Exchange, converting commodity-traders with every word. That broadcast is soon interrupted by a public service announcement to the effect that I have been such a terrible dolt for so long that a law has been passed prohibiting my consumption of quality meat. I had just such an experience this morning in the bathroom. I was standing in front of the mirror, my mouth open, my eyes staring through themselves. A toothbrush rested on a shy molar and a long stretching minty flavored stalactite of spittle flowed out of my mouth and reached slowly, I would say elegantly, for the exasperated sink-bowl below. Upstairs a number of thoughts were coming together.
In my family, my Grandfather is held in the highest esteem and thoughts of him to this day instantly flood us all with feelings of undiluted love. His profound modesty insured his immortality in our hearts. I think that as a boy I must have been either aware that I was in the presence of a great wisdom or that some day the sun would simply not rise in quite the same way. During one of the magical summers I spent with him I hounded him daily with a single question. That summer I was reading about Alexander the Great and the role of his great teacher Aristotle. I fancied that I was Alexander the Great and so clearly I had need for an Aristotle.
“What advice would you give me that I can keep with me throughout my life?” I asked my Grandfather.
For weeks he avoided answering the question.
“What little do I know of the world that you should ask me for advice about it!” he replied.
But nothing can stop a tenacious child with an endless summer and eventually he spoke.
“I wish I had said less,” he replied.
Not quite getting the tone and suspecting that it was his indirect way of suggesting that I pipe-down I pushed him to assess the sincerity of his suggestion.
“Sometimes I’ve said such stupid things,” he continued, “and I knew once the words had left my mouth, but there was no way of taking them back and if I only had stayed quiet, everyone would have been better off.”
The gaze in his eyes was not fixed in the present. He was in some place before me, perhaps before my father if not before himself. I now felt like my search for Aristotle had cost too much and incapable of bearing a second of anything less than his happiness, I nudged him and tried to make light of the whole thing and said;
“Sometimes we all say things and they are just words, its just talk.”
He was not regretful or sad but the feeling seemed more like a craftsman looking back on something he had made and being a little annoyed by some aspect of it.
“Sometimes its better to say less,” he concluded.
I took this, wrapped it in my own ignorance and placed it inside my heart for a future where perhaps I would understand it better. As the years passed I added to that inheritance something my father told me as I became a young man;
“All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to stay quiet.”
And something my mother said:
“Never use the word hate.”
These three wisdoms are my inheritance. I often unfold them from their napkins at times when I need either guidance or courage. I have looked at each, sometimes excluding the other. I’ve balanced them, favored some and discounted others, often to serve my own ends. But lately they have become in my mind, like the stars in Orion’s Belt; aligned.
In my first lecture at University, my English Literature professor began:
“The world is made of stories. Stories we tell each other about the world around us and ourselves about that which lies within.”
If this is true, and I increasingly believe that it is vitally so, then words are the building blocks of what we call reality. All three pieces of advice, given to me by my family, center around a belief in the potency of words. In alignment they read;
“Words have power, use them with judgment and justice, otherwise you will create a hell for yourself.”
Neuroscience supports the statement that consistently repeated thoughts create neural pathways in the brain that makes it more likely that subsequent thoughts will follow the same path. But consistently used words can also create consistent thought patterns. Change your words and over time you can change your thoughts. Hateful words preserve hateful thoughts and end with our becoming hateful. Right speech can create right mind and words can maketh the man.