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Jon Foreman

Jon Foreman

Posted: January 25, 2010 12:15 PM

What's in a Word?

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Communication is a pregnancy of sorts. In a speaker's mind, a thought is conceived, then spoken, heard, and then ultimately gives birth to new thought in the listener's mental landscape. For example, when I say "tree," a picture builds in your imagination, a new life-form within your mind; a platonic idea of oak or maple appears out of nothing within your thoughts. This mental icon represents your understanding of the word. (Incidentally, this apprehension is independent of the speaker's intentions).

In many ways, words are metaphors pointing to the objects they represent. The word "tree" is not a tree; it is simply a placeholder for the real thing. Our understanding of the world is built upon a deeper set of presuppositions. Meaning demands meaning. Reason demands reason: 1+1=2, only when we agree upon the meaning of these symbols. The same is true for words. Words are our framework of meaning. Every one is a metaphor reaching to something beyond it's simple spelling and articulation.

Words have incredible power. Words create worlds. The words we use define ourselves and the world around us. They shape our reality. Our words determine our ideologies.

In India there is a group of people who have been oppressed for over 3000 years. They are called the Dalit. They are relegated to the worst jobs, cleaning sewers and removing the bodies of dead animals from the roads. Even the cows, whose bodies they clean from the side of the road, are treated with far more respect. Over the coarse of time, the identity of the Dalit people group, (also called the "untouchables"), has been stripped of all dignity. "They have been oppressed not just economically or even physically, but also ideologically," states Jean- Luc Racine and Josiane Racine, who goes on to say that ultimate freedom will come when the Dalit's define themselves in a new way. According to the Racines the question becomes, "Which new identity will sustain the emancipation process?"¹

Words are the keepers of history. If the Dalit's handle of "untouchability" feels too foreign to our American ears, let us examine a few race-driven words within our own borders. These are words that I feel uncomfortable even putting into print. Nigger. Wetback. Red Neck. Cracker. Chinks. Spicks. These words are pregnant with incredible potency. These words do not have a history of tolerance, of acceptance, or compassion. No, these words tell the story of oppression -- of an American landscape of racism and mistrust. Without our past, these words have no negative connotations. Yet within our historical landscape of slavery and shame, these words have powerful implications.

Words are the foundation upon which we build our lives. This holds true even for wonderful words like Love, Light, Justice, Honor, Truth, Joy, Peace, Redemption, Happiness, or Beauty. These are beautiful words, yet they are words we know only in part.

We've seen glimpses of these entities on our planet, but only for a moment. How can we know the full meaning of justice on a planet where cruel power has the final say? How can we know peace against the backdrop of increasingly sophisticated war machines?

Today, thousands of six-year-olds around the world are hungry, wondering how they will get their next meal. Tragedy. Right now, thousands of innocent girls are being forced into prostitution. Tragedy. This very hour, millions of people are dying because of a lack of access to clean water. Tragedy.

Tragedy. Tragedy. Tragedy. And yet, if these are the simple facts, how can we call it tragic?

Hans Urs von Balthasar says that tragedy is dependent upon a belief system. "The meeting of these two words,'tragedy' and 'faith' is deeply significant, for what is broken in the tragic presupposes a faith in the unbroken totality."² Hope is believing in a world that does not exist yet, a concession towards the kingdom of the heavens. To hope is to believe that life could be better. It is ultimately our belief in this "unbroken totality" that allows for the potential of tragedy. For without this hope, tragedy is no longer tragedy -- it's simply expected. Without a belief that allows for a better world, the tragic is fact.

So we are given a choice at the edge of these two worlds. The choice between despair or hope. To be in despair is to deny that tragedy is tragedy. To be in despair is to disbelieve in the tragic and redefine it as acceptable, immutable, unchangeable. To hope is to call injustices and corruptions exactly what they are: tragic. Against all odds, against all that we know about this world, we could choose to hope for a better one -- to hope for love, for peace, for a form of contentment and solace that we have never fully realized. We choose to speak these worlds into being.

To create is to cosign the Maker's checks. In the Abrahamic beliefs, (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) the Maker speaks things into existence. Light, darkness, day, night, water, land, plants and animals... these are spoken into being. In the Hindu scriptures, there is a similar creation story, in which the verbal command comes from Vishnu, "Create the world." In all of these belief systems, the Word has tremendous power. The Christian account of the creation makes virtually no distinction between God and Word in the beginning. John 1:1 states, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

The artist is a bridge between despair and hope. The artist, more than anyone else is responsible for the re-creation, re-definition and re-thinking the world around us. Every poem, every song, every painting has tremendous possibility. Each of these creations could be a letter of resignation to The World That Is or a window into The World That Is Not. Each poem/painting/song could be a vehicle to a new reality, one in which the artist plays a part no matter how small. The artist paints a world into existence. The canvas, the paint, the brush--these known quantities of existence and reality are tools for stepping into the unknown. The notes of the song are a bridge from what is to what is not yet.

I don't write songs when I'm happy. When I'm content, I take my wife out to dinner, I go surfing. I hang out with my friends and play ridiculous cover tunes when I'm happy. But when I'm depressed, I turn to look for something beyond this life. When I'm lonely and nothing makes sense and the world has lost it's flavor I search for notes and words that usher in a transcendence that soars high above the tragedy. I look for to song to understand the present tragedy in the context of a hope for a better world. I look for words that remind me of a bigger story, for songs that acknowledge the tragedy and move beyond it. I look to artists who give me windows, words that provide for a new life to be birthed within me.

Is it escape? Is it a coping mechanism? Maybe a bit, but I feel that it is much more than that. The song becomes a hopeful defiance. A declaration that the injustices and absurdities of our postmodern existence are not the final downbeat. Music becomes a confession of disbelief in the world that surrounds me. A refusal to believe that these tragedies and horrors are the ultimate end. A refusal to accept the oppression of the Dalit's as anything other than tragic. A nonacceptance that the starving six year old is anything other than tragic. The song is written in defense of a world beyond this one, in defense of Truths that seldom make it to the front page of the newspaper. Words create worlds.

¹ Dalit Identities and The Dialectics of Oppression and Emancipation in a Changing India: The Tamil Case and Beyond -Jean-Luc Racine & Josiane Racine
² The von Bathasar reader p. 92