As a poet and reader, I love words. As a child “dyslexicly” trying to make sense of inky scribblings and smudges on paper, I fell in love with the majesty of language. I was amazed at the way words can create whole new worlds and change the contours of how we see. Words have redirected the trajectory of the planet. We hold this Truth to be self-evident, words have inspired and motivated positive, effective action and set whole nations on pathways toward a better life. And yet words have also lit the most violent flames in our history. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the prophetic rabbi who “prayed with his feet”, pointed out that “the Holocaust did not begin with the building of crematoria, with tanks and guns. It began with uttering evil words, with defamation, with language and propaganda.”
So be careful with words. They are beautiful, maddening and inexact. Even when aiming for good, words can betray us or lead to misunderstanding. We can point a word toward truth with all the passion, commitment and vigilance of a zealot, only to have someone else express something wholly and completely contrary, while arguing for the same truth.
Susan Sontag wrote that we were not entitled to be surprised at the horrors of the world. “Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.”
But it is not “surprise” that is the problem. It is blindness, naiveté, apathy. Heschel admonished that we must never let go of astonishment. That we should always be shocked at the horrors man will inflict upon man. “An individual dies when they cease to be surprised. . . When I see an act of evil I don’t accomodate, I don’t accomodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere. I am still so surprised! That is why I am against it. We must learn to be surprised.”
Both Sontag and Heschel were speaking a truth. The world needs you. Do not close your eyes to it. Do not allow yourself to become blind or dull to where the world calls us to intervene. Pay attention to what life presents. Pay attention to where it asks you to be who you are in your best moments, those moments when you extend beyond yourself. Attune yourself to the inequities that exist and stand up for the vulnerable, stand up for what is right and good and beautifully human.
Every day let me look to the stars or the clouds and still feel the earth beneath bare feet. Every day let me gaze in the eyes of people passing by, of those in the office, and those at the corner store, and grant me astonishment. And in my astonishment let me hear what is in their hearts. Forever help me have the clarity and humility to reach out with ready hands to do my simple, minuscule part to redeem the world. The world needs us. #GiveHope #DoGood
Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, pp 114-15
Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man : A Philosophy of Judaism
The photo “The Kindness of Strangers” was generously made available by Darinka Maja via a Creative Commons License.