I have a friend with whom I rarely speak, but whom I value and respect very much. Perhaps that is why I listen a bit more intently when he shares something, or why his words to me penetrate more deeply than those I hear elsewhere. Six years ago he told me something that penetrated to a most vulnerable and defensive spot in me, “You use too many words.”
I’ve been running from the possibility of being truly still with the things that really move and affect me since I was a teenager. In fact, personal journaling and letter writing have often seemed a compulsive madness to me. Somewhere in the mess of words were the few that were my real, and most sincere, intentional expressions. But how to know? Since that moment in 2008, when I read those simple five words from my friend, “You use too many words,” I’ve been working to open that closed place in me that needed all those words.
Throughout my years as a university professor, I recall the many evenings after graduate seminars, when I felt dirty from all the words I’d been spewing. More often than not, it was not because I had said something I didn’t mean or believe, or because I’d lied or been cruel, but because I had not been strong enough to allow myself to be silent. But when confronted by the observation of my verbose tendencies, my response was lacking in integrity–I acknowledged and identified with my ‘belief’ in silence, my ‘belief’ in mindful expression. I defended the morass of words I’d expressed, as if they had been mindfully voiced. Such efforts felt ugly and were beyond using “too many words;” they were dishonest.
Yes, words are powerful, and, yes, words can help me say a lot of things that perhaps I may even have meant to express. But silence, and prayer, and contemplation–these are the expressions of my heart and soul that allow me to open up in humility to the Source that is greater than anything I might think I need to say. And this is the conviction I hold that places me in a heretical stance to a profession that I must mindfully patrol. I must watch with care that my ego and personality weaknesses not be tempted by an assumed “right” that I have somehow earned to “use too many words.”
The most powerful things I have written have all been “written through me,” not by me. If I am not living a life that helps me to practice the ability to be still and silent, there is no room or time or place for this to occur. My words then become mirrors of my world, or worse, compulsive repetition of mental tropes, professional scripts, cultural norms.
Perhaps one of the greatest heresies to which I am called is the mindful defiance of the norms of my profession–the norm of believing that we must “publish or perish.” Because truthfully, I feel myself perishing, not because I am not minding the publishing clock, but each time I use words in a perfunctory, “busy,” institutionalized style, or more vulnerably, out of fear or egotistical strategy. I do not need to publish, or even speak or write to be of value, or to live fully. But I do need silence, and out of that silence, come words through me.
My grandfather told me, when I was three years old, that I could write as much as I wanted to, as long as I had something to say. But to write without saying something, was wasting paper, he told me.*
May I be mindful of my words, and strong enough in my faith and connection to my purpose in this life, to know I need not be bound by the conventions and orthodoxies of expression surrounding me. And may I not contribute to these conventions through my ego’s folly, my spiritual sloth, or my mindless jabber.