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David Vognar Headshot

The Force of Words Thrust Into Sordid Societal Inertia

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The other day in the YMCA locker room, the TV was blaring with the conversation of two pundits. I was half-naked and heading for the steam room as I waded through the claptrap.

One man mouthed off about the arrogance of citizens demanding social change when they lack expertise. I cringed. However, his sparring partner's words resounded with me. She was a well-meaning woman and she earnestly replied that it is arrogant not to act when America runs on greed and ill-will.

When I reflected on her words, I concluded that it is actually understandable not to act on our good intentions in a society soaked with vainly competitive and ultimately enervating petty philosophies. While apparently giving us many paths to walk toward real change, the glut of minor maxims makes it harder for justice to find its course. The things we fight about in these word wars are so stupid, superficial, superstitious and culturally entrenched that they can make us think human nature lacks perspective. In reality, we are not our words; we are behind them. Focusing so much attention on the details of our arguments and opinions bogs us down in bickering polemical minutiae when we could be opening up with each other about how we can resourcefully ease communal pain.

Common folk who love justice are stultified in staring at the marquees of exalted worldviews warring for our minds that lack one essential quality: practicality. Seeing in ourselves and others the tight grip of reactionary verbal conformity begs the core question: can we prove the ineffectiveness of complicated philosophy by carefully examining its hold on us? Does dogma not make us defensive instead of open, fearful instead of joyous, elitist instead of egalitarian, perfectionist instead of content, obedient instead of inquisitive and in denial instead of motivated? Such indoctrinate thinking and unintuitive feeling is a holdover from ancient times; it reflects a giant misunderstanding of reality as a wholly haphazard, scary place.

Franz Kafka wrote brilliant aphorisms about mankind's muffing up of (albeit imperfect) reality through our reliance on philosophical motivations. This Jewish Czech who suffered an aggressive father, poor health and many more trials still did not adopt a cynical view toward the world. He identified with his fellows and loved the world. On how our misconceptions trip us up, he wrote, "The true way is along a rope that is not spanned high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked upon."

Let us tread upon this guiding rope. Let us use language to see a planet with good, sincere people -- some under the influence of cruel circumstances and even crueler human abuses and misunderstandings -- drowning in a sea of fearful words. They are our sentence for a misguided attempt to piece everything together perfectly. We do not need a tangible truth, we need a truce. And words can build the bridge. If wordsmiths can hone their craft toward practically speaking truth to power, we can give great power to truth. The art of words is our greatest strength at a time when the world seems beset from all sides by political, economic and psychosocial problems. Ferocious writers, fierce speakers, and fiery artists can use words to transform this world collapsing upon itself into a planet on which people can grow closer together. Words have the power to move mountains, not toward unrealistic perfection but toward the greater good.

One great hindrance that prevents us from doing good to the best that we can is our unquestioned assumption that this is a Nietzschean animal world, which will always be a wild and crazy jungle. Yes, we are mixed beasts. We have an urge to screw, eat and strut as well as a desire for peace, wholeness and love. I do not quibble with the first two of our animal instincts, yet the idea that some of us are "better" than others is a lie that must die out. We have the great gifts of reason and sentiment that can elevate us to the peak of our promise: to see each other as equals.

Altruism is not Pollyanna-ish. An intelligent, kind reality does not favor human misunderstanding or wizened conservatism. It favors wisdom and bold honesty with an eye toward action. I agree with evolutionists who say the universe is not here for humanity's sake alone. I am also a religious skeptic. That certain traits seem to survive is undeniable; there is a preference for physical beauty and intelligence, but most will say objective symmetry is the mark.

Nevertheless, I cannot deny the vision of Martin Luther King Jr., who understood the reality of a moral universe. In my understanding, reality does not favor human pettiness, procrastination or permissiveness of evil. There is considerable room for kindness and a deep desire for equality that we deny beneath the surface of our settlement for symmetry. Our natural instincts may be ultimately overtaken if we do not open up to our other natural urge for fairness. We must call out corruption as we encounter it, and understand that thugs spread fear not out of monstrosity but because it seems easier to intimidate than to feel afraid. We may encounter resistance from ourselves and others when we disobey the unjust and unreasonable. The price is our fear, and the prize is our freedom.

If we persist in placing philosophy over actuality, we may no longer be fit for this planet. We must draw a line somewhere. Despite the world's problems, grand and annoying, we can act to solve them if we temporarily suspend our high judgment of "right" and "wrong" opinions. We can, if only for a moment in the sweeping time of space, sustain our arguments to reveal something realer and more forceful than trains of thought. We can radically cede dysfunctional debate for peace, if imperfect. We can succeed in fixing what is broken economically, socially and politically through resourcefulness. I think that we will find ourselves emerging less frozen in ideology and more free to move where our compassionate hearts and newly opened minds take us.

I am unshaken in my belief that we have the capacity to do whatever it is we set our minds to do, given the proper encouragement, opportunities and time. Death takes us all, and before we go we ought to do all we can to treat each other as equals. In the end, philosophy finishes second to friends.

Perhaps my optimism comes from my work with children at a Head Start preschool. I am surrounded by these sprouting seeds of life. These mostly harmless little human beings truly show their love for each other. They are honest, have fun, share, act from their hearts much more than older people, and enjoy learning and playing with similar vigor. Yet the cold culture is creeping into them. To help them, we can open our art to wage the good fight for peaceful heart and head, instead of watching the endless war of words march on.