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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