Wise words misshapen


Our daughter gave me a coffee mug used every morning. It has this bit of doggerel baked onto the side.

Because of your lectures,

I never change horses in the middle of a job worth doing,

I know that the squeaky wheel gets the worm,

And I never count my chickens until I have walked a mile in their shoes.

[Then the punchline around the inside of the mug.]

And you thought I wasn’t listening.

These lines raise the issue of the ways we interpret words, phrases, and messages in our communications with each other and use or misuse them.

The humor doesn’t cover a barb about my tiresome sermons, I hope. However, humor can ridicule and demean a person even while everyone laughs. An aunt and a cousin were experts in hurtful humor. It is better not to tease or poke fun at anyone you don’t like or respect.

We regularly receive only partial reports, images, or details slanted by individuals and groups promoting a particular viewpoint, social or political position — inviting you to enter their silo and join their mob. Our protection from faslehood comes from critical thinking and discipline, while also attending to a variety of sources and voices. No one has all truth, but some presentations are more truthful than others.

Be careful that you don’t put too much weight on gossip or second-hand reports of statements, lest you be led astray. Please don’t repeat gossip, which can be a dishonest form of stealing. From Shakespeare’s Othello: ‘Who steals my purse steals trash; … But he who filches from me my good name, Robs me of that which not enriches him [i.e., does not enrich him], And makes me poor indeed.’ A man confessed spreading falsehoods against a neighbor and asked for penance. The priest told him to search out everyone who heard the gossip and correct the error. Dejected, the man replied that would be like tracing feathers dumped from a pillow on a windy street corner. Precisely!

Words and phrases change usage and meaning with increasing rapidity, and new ones are shaped. It seems that communication is increasingly through abbreviations and acronyms. Those create an insiders’ language that excludes many who aren’t ‘in the know.’ Good communication is intelligible to the general public, unless one wishes to be secretive, exclusive, or incompetent. A Wabash colleague, Bill Placher, was disconcerted when a reviewer of one of his books said it could not be profound because it was written in simple terms. Bill remarked to me, ‘He doesn’t know how hard I worked to write clearly about difficult philosophical and theological concepts.’ Bill discussed some chapters of his books with intelligent laypeople in two local churches — with some of you!

Be careful to listen intently to what others say. Don’t listen in order to argue or critique, but to understand — and perhaps to learn. What the person says might be wrong, so listen carefully to learn about the person, beliefs, principles, or lack thereof. Listening carefully does not imply agreement. Understanding alternatives to your position might make your position stronger, or perhaps cause you to revise it.

Finally, while you smile about imprints on the coffee mug, ponder how we use and sometimes misuse and misunderstand words, and even images that come to eye and mind.


Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.