Living Messengers

By John P. Van Mater
Let us use with care those living messengers called words. -- W. Q. Judge

The spoken word seems a nebulous thing, a puff of air, a mere sound, yet one has been known to destroy an empire or save a thousand lives. Within words are ideas, which are their souls, the seeds from which they spring. If we had no ideas, no meanings to convey or the urge to do so, we would not have that flood which tumbles in upon us from every quarter -- over radio and televison, in newspapers, magazines, and books -- and constitutes a man-made fallout of horrendous proportions.

A few centuries ago words were not so overwhelmingly available to everyone; books were rare, and news reached a relatively small circle. This allowed viewpoints to become extremely parochial, for individuals had no way of knowing what went on outside their city, county, or nation. It is difficult to picture what life must have been like for the common people without mass communication, when so few knew how to read; when, in Europe for example, the only book they knew about was the Bible, whose wisdom they received secondhand from priests. In those days the ruling classes sought to prevent the emancipating power of words from reaching the populace, and it is more than coincidence that as the world's peoples become better informed, they demand and receive a voice in government.

Thus words embody the power that resides in ideas, and we can judge the character of any epoch by the manner in which it treats them. Wherever speech is free, human enterprise is released to build lofty structures; but when authority seeks to crush out ideas and tortures the one who utters something forbidden, it is a dark age indeed. Many of us have been born intellectually and physically free, and it is not easy for us to visualize the courage of those who sought to crack open the shell of tyranny and bigotry. We may read about the lives they were called upon to give so that we may use our words without arbitrary restraints, but do we continue to value sufficiently a privilege that we may now enjoy without any personal sacrifice?

Just because in many countries we may speak our minds, does not insure that what we say is always worth saying -- although the right to do so is worth everything. Indeed a visit to the bookstore or an evening of TV reveals that the utmost inanities are daily consumed by millions. I doubt if ever before the human race has been bombarded by such a barrage of words concerning unimportant trifles. We have an itching for entertainment, for mere information, and as long as this is being scratched we believe we are happy -- at least the empty hours are painlessly passing. Meanwhile we often fill our minds with substitutes for meaningful thought, while the power to think creatively is rarely evoked.

With the retreat of quiet goes the ability to stand above the roaring tide and reflect upon it. Every device is used to grasp our attention and entice us into the maelstrom of buying and selling, competing and pleasuring. Advertisers, both political and commercial, believe that by pounding upon a theme long enough opinion can be molded, regardless of truth or falsity. The "thinking man" is applauded -- but is he really encouraged to think? If not, then words are being made traitors to the ideas they once so faithfully enshrined and we are frittering away our energies upon stuff by which our mental vigor is being sapped.

Yet the darker the shadow, the brighter the light that made it. While the tireless presses grind out an endless waste of words, on the positive side this same mechanical ingenuity has made available to everyone the treasury of the world's wisdom. Plato's Dialogues and the Bhagavad-Gita can be had in inexpensive editions. Hundreds of other valuable books are being read by millions. Truly great biography and history are being written, as well as scientific works of the highest merit. Television and radio carry some programs that are both stimulating and educational. After more than a millennium of neglect we are looking into every corner of the earth and out into the universe in order to describe and explain their myriad phases. Thus in addition to the tons of mere verbiage being dumped upon us, mountains of worthwhile words are printed and spoken each year, to be consumed by the advancing stream of human understanding.

Today more than ever our words reveal the true stature of mankind -- mean and selfish, pleasure-hunting and preoccupied with sex, but also compassionate and courageous, concerned with making this a better world. Whereas in ancient times only words considered important were recorded, nowadays the good, bad, and indifferent are profusely immortalized. That so many can and do read and write carries the common person out into the full current of world happenings, tensions, and plans. He feels himself somehow involved in and co-responsible for all mankind in a manner not possible heretofore.

Amidst the welter of confused claims, arguments, reports, we sense the inexorable tide of human destiny sweeping us forward -- to what? We long for a stable peace, for a workable human brotherhood, but are bitterly learning that the well-being of all nations hinges upon the integrity of each one. We try to reconcile the words of governments with their acts, for if promises have no validity, our civilization will surely break down. This is a heart-searching, soul-testing, mind-purging era, and we can make it horrible through misunderstanding or glorious if we can shake off our prejudices and conceits and clarify what is the true role of the human family on this planet.

The excess of language may in time induce a word-weary public to appreciate the power that resides in understatement. It may be the only sure way to learn how to separate personal and national double-talk from the plain truth. Possibly a reaction will set in and we shall again "use with care those living messengers called words." If so, a man's word will once more become his bond and a nation's integrity its most cherished possession.

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 2004; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)

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