Sticks and stones may break my bones,
but words will never hurt me.
How many of you remember that little ditty? Bullshit, I say. Having been on the receiving end of many a word, I have found that the hurt they leave behind is both greater and longer lasting than any physical pain that I have experienced. Luckily, I have not suffered true abuse, but being more interested in band, theater, and computers instead of sports, cars, and sex during my school years means that I did have to face my share of bullies.
And, you know what: I can’t recall any of them ever having hit me. The closest thing to a physical altercation I ever had was when they threw chestnuts at me fallen from a local tree outside of our middle school. What I mean to say is: my bullies used their words.
Words have power. Sometimes it’s because we put them together to form a narrative attractive in some way but on their own, they can be similarly potent. Were any of you shocked, even if only slightly, by the use of the term “bullshit” above? We’ve given that word, and others like it, special significance in our language; we’ve labeled them “curses” and tell our children not to use them. Granted, at the same time, our media uses them like they’re going out of style, but mixed messaging is a topic for another post.
As Pagans, many of us practice magic in one form or another. While it is certainly possible to perform a spell silently, most of the ones I’ve either encountered or performed have some element of spoken word. Even if it’s simply a shared chant to try and get everyone working together and in sync–magically moving in the same direction, if you will. And, if words lacked power, why would one’s silence about a spell often be considered an important piece of its success?The problem with words, however, is that they mean different things to different people and at different times. Our words shift and change, and no matter how many people, from Samuel Johnson to the modern, corporate lexicographers writing our dictionaries today, try to pin them down, they continue to morph and change.
In some cases, new meanings are added as new ideas or technologies enhance our lives. Hell, I can remember when a “tweet” was something a bird did and you wrote on a “tablet” with a pen or pencil! Other times, a word’s meaning is actively changed for political or social reasons, especially the words that we use to describe other people. Do you remember when “retard” was not only a socially acceptable term for some individuals but it was actually considered appropriate? Or, to bring it closer to home, how many of us who use the term “witch” or “pagan” do so in a way very different from others? Consider the consternation of many within our wider community when Pope Francis used “paganism” in a recent address; RevKess does a great job summarizing the situation and shares many of my feelings on that topic perhaps better than I’m doing right now.
Above, I stated that words have power. It’s hard to deny that. But in many ways, words lack meaning. Or, perhaps more accurately, they lack an immutable meaning. This presents a particularly interesting challenge to those of us who write online; we must pick our words very carefully both to try and be as clear as possible and to avoid writing something that might be understood differently by different people. And, frankly, this latter goal is likely impossible. If nothing else, if our words are read again decades hence, it’s likely that their meaning will be different. Imagine a world 30 years after Twitter disappears (think it can’t happen? remember MySpace?); how, then, will be use the word “tweet?”
2013 started, for me, with an identity crisis. I spent weeks trying to determine who and what I was. It was largely an internal conflict, a problem that I dealt with but that I’m not sure I’ve fully solved. Oddly, it also included more than a few online conflagrations between different groups of people within the wider Pagan community over the validity of various forms of polytheism, the nature of the gods, and who is or is not a Pagan. These situations necessitate the use of words–especially when they’re online–but they are exacerbated by the shifting, changing nature of the meaning and perception of those words.
As we begin 2014, let us all try to see the meaning of the words as intended by their speaker (or writer). When someone says something you disagree with, don’t immediately assume that they’re a fool. Instead, let’s resolve to try and figure out why they think what they do and said what the did. It’s an act of compassion, in many ways, to give someone else’s point of view at least a moment of consideration. You might find that you still disagree, but I’ve found that my response to those disagreements is more measured and received with more grace when I can show that I’ve attempted to see things in the way that the other does.
Happy New Year from all of us here at Pagan Activist. May it be filled with joy and laughter, happiness and health, and may its moments of pain be few, far between, and overcome.
P.S. – Last year, I wrote a post about bees. I’ll admit that they’re a passion of mine and have been since I was young. If you’re interested in bees, I noticed that two documentaries have popped up on Netflix. The first is called The Vanishing of the Bees, from 2009, and the other is More than Honey, from 2012. I have not watched them yet, I just noticed their availability over the weekend, so I can’t speak to their content. But, if you have access to Netflix and you would like to know more about bees and the challenges they face (and we face without them) either of these might help.