What Do You Mean?

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I had an argument a little while back with my then-five-year-old daughter.  We were in a department store, waiting while her older sister tried on clothes.  Baby Girl the Second had carried a blanket in with her, and was passing the time playing dress-up herself, draping it this way and that, posing, asking, “Don’t I look divine?”  The gentleman waiting for his wife shot a bemused glance our way when I answered, “No, divine is what God is.  You’re pretty.”  This went on for several minutes, with BGS declaring ever more emphatically, “Well, divine means pretty to me.”

I got the feeling that the waiting gentleman thought I was being rather legalistic with a small child on a matter that wasn’t really important.  And I have a pretty good idea which of BGS’ books planted the mis-definition in her head – a cute series about a little girl who loves big, fancy words and defines them parenthetically, but now that I think of it, not always very accurately, for her audience.

What’s the big deal?  No kingdoms are going to rise and fall on the misuse of a word by a five-year-old girl in greater suburbia.  I understand that.  And despite my upbringing, I don’t actually believe we’re likely to be struck by lightning due to an accidental misappropriation of an attribute of the Almighty.  But the erosion of language is a big deal.

Words matter.  Words contain and convey power, and words have precise meanings, and the gradual alteration of the meanings dilutes or redirects the power.  As the process goes on, the current usage of a word may be so far removed from its original intent as to render it virtually meaningless.  Gentleman, for instance.  It once described a very specific status, that of being well-educated, well-bred, and well-to-do.  The world has changed, and perhaps it’s of little consequence that gentleman now indicates simply a nice, well-mannered, preferably well-groomed, person of the male gender.  And how about nice, while we’re here?  It used to mean fastidious, exacting of great precision.  Maybe it’s not earth-shaking that today, as C.S. Lewis points out in the preface to Mere Christianity, “it no longer tells you facts about the object:  it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object.  (A ‘nice’ meal only means a meal the speaker likes.)”

The subtle shift of the meanings of other words, however, can have far-reaching effects.  Think about toleranceEqualityChristian.  What happens when freedom means one thing to you, and a different thing to me?

This piece was first published as “The Power of Words, Part Three” on http://www.booksbybecka.com on October 16, 2012.

Words as Weapons

It’s pretty obvious that words spoken to – or shouted at – or whispered about – us can inflict harm.  Words can be wielded as weapons in a number of ways.  But casualties are not always the result of direct frontal assault, covert sniper fire, or even espionage.  Sometimes we are laid waste by siege.  What is withheld weakens us to the breaking point.

Some of the people who hurt us the most, and the deepest, can honestly claim never to have said a negative word to or against us.  But they haven’t said anything positive either, and the words never said can leave a gaping void.  It’s good of them, maybe, not to mention our mistakes.  It’s cold of them not to acknowledge our successes.  Refraining from tearing down is not the same as building up.

This piece was first published as “The Power of Words, Part Two” on http://www.booksbybecka.com on October 9, 2012.

Sticks and Stones

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I believe strongly in the power of words.  I’m sure whoever – I always imagine it was a frazzled mother trying to comfort a distraught child – first spoke that ditty about sticks and stones meant well, maybe even believed it herself, but she was sadly mistaken.  Words can inflict deep wounds that take much longer to heal than broken bones do, perhaps precisely because the word-wounds are so deeply hidden and therefore not recognized and treated.  We’re taught to brush away insults, to shrug off epithets.  I think something in that shrugging motion actually causes the barbs to work further in under our skin, where their poison seeps into our bloodstream.  But we don’t mention our discomfort, won’t let ourselves succumb to the “weakness” of admitting our disease.

Sometimes we can pull it off.  We’re strong enough to absorb small stings with minimal lasting damage.  Some of us, sometimes, are so tough that we walk around with embedded shrapnel, trying not to limp and pretending that we aren’t in pain.  But some of us have been pierced with words like Morgul-blades:  the skin has closed over the wound quickly, leaving only a small white mark; but the scar conceals a deadly splinter, festering, working its way inwards.  If that malicious fragment is not found and excised, it will destroy us.

We are rarely, if ever, able to perform the operation ourselves.  We are too bewildered to recognize what needs to be done, too lost in pain to be able to focus our attention on the precise source of the infection, too weak and fearful to begin the excruciating process.  This is one of the many reasons it is vital for us to live in community, to surround ourselves with trusted friends who can often see our wounds more clearly and objectively than we can; who will encourage us, even carry us if necessary, to seek help and healing; who will sit with us and hold our hands through the dark, painful hours, speaking words of light and life.

This piece was first published as “The Power of Words” on http://www.booksbybecka.com on October 4, 2012.

My Life as a Doll, Part Three

I married at barely past twenty, and for the next decade I functioned more or less acceptably, much like one of those dolls with a pull string on the back of her neck that makes her talk.  I developed a repertoire of stock phrases and behaviors that, if they didn’t quite fit the circumstances, if they didn’t ring exactly true, were yet close enough for people to gloss over and interpret as what they wanted to hear and see.

I didn’t realize it then, but of course the mask works both ways.  The smooth, resilient exterior that prevented people knowing what I mess I was inside also undoubtedly kept me from absorbing much light and love that might have been mine.

Over time, by the grace of God, the polished finish began to wear through in spots, and the pull string started fraying.  Around my thirtieth birthday, I began to wake up inside, began at least to realize that I had been suffocating.

Shadows, Part Three

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shadow:  a state of ignominy or obscurity

ignominy:  public shame or disgrace

obscurity:  the state of being unknown, inconspicuous or unimportant; the state of being difficult to understand

Despite the progress made over the past several decades in both the medical community and the general public toward better understanding mental health, any form of psychological disease still carries a stigma in some churches and some families.

My first major depressive episode began when I was seventeen.  My mother and I talked about it, once.  The only ‘solution’ she offered was that I could go talk to the youth pastor.  I didn’t; I already knew well enough that in that church, at that time, it was understood that Christians had no reason to be depressed, and if I just prayed about it I’d feel better, and if I didn’t feel better I was harboring some wrong in my heart that I needed to confess and pray through.

So rather than exposing myself to certain lack of understanding, rather than bringing down disgrace and shame upon myself and my family, I put up an acceptable façade and made my true self as inconspicuous as possible.  Thus began a years-long sojourn in the shadows, during which the real Rebekah shrank to an unknown entity, even to myself.