Words That Matter

I read a narrow range of things on the internet. The usual suspects – NPR, the New York Times, the New Yorker – and a range of contemplative online magazines. There’s only so much I can take in on a given day. If I could walk around with noise-cancelling headphones and sunglasses on every day, I’d be content and probably have a lot less anxiety. As a highly sensitive person, I do have to be more careful with what I absorb, or rather, the way in which I absorb the world’s information. I take in the difficulty of the world because my integrity demands it of me.  My sensitivity attunes me to both beauty and difficulty, and I’ve found that both are nearly always present, perhaps not in the same moment, every day, if we are paying attention.

As much as we can be selective about what we consume, by virtue of sitting in front of a computer screen, there is a lot that we see and absorb that is not under our control. We cannot filter out the sort of news we’d rather not see. We cannot know what sort of article will be linked to the bottom of another.

For example, stories with headlines like this: “Person A SLAMS Person B in…” UGH! Can people please stop “slamming” other people??? This phrase, for starters, is now so overused, so often repeated it makes me feel nauseated looking at it in black and white. It sends chills through my body, like some sort of awful sign of who we are becoming together. Why would anyone be happy to hear someone demeaned or criticized another person so forcefully?

There are so many ways people ache, so many layers and forms of suffering. To know that gun violence persists in our country or that corruption is thick in our government or that children die of famine is gut-wrenching. Those are kinds of truths that knock the wind out of anyone with a soft heart. Those are truths that are terrible and important, worthy of our attention. To know that one celebrity (nearly always female) purportedly “slammed” another (nearly always female) celebrity… well, that’s the kind of truth that makes one (who is currently spending all of her time studying religious virtue) want to slam her head into a concrete wall. It is a truth borne of a fascination with nothingness, designed to shock not to inform or uplift.

This sort of nothing-violence, like cotton candy that makes one immediately sick, erodes our collective dignity. It is fundamentally destructive. And that sort of destruction, that has nothing to do with the hard work of making the world a more compassionate and more beautiful and safer place for all, is not worthy of anyone’s time.

Think of the words that would be antithetical to “slamming” someone. Some ideas? Nurtures, blesses, loves, gives, forgives, celebrates, thanks, shares, acknowledges, graces, holds, listens, soothes, comforts, protects, attends, receives, respects, contemplates, witnesses, prays, restores. Can you imagine how our world would be different, if we could take in words like this, at the very least on stories about human relationships?

We must be intentional with where we place our attention. It is a sort of contemplative practice because it requires discernment, or in other words, applied wisdom. Attention requires energy, and as we pour our energy into something, it either makes us stronger and returns energy to us – whether that be in the form of righteous indignation or joy – or it drains us, making are hearts harder and more defended. 

We are in constant communion with the life around us, whether we like it or not. That is a beautiful and tricky and sacred thing.