Here’s something we’ve forgotten that poets, shamans, healers, and sorcerers (a healer’s dark opposite) have known for millennia: words matter. The power of a curse and a blessing—and the difference between the two—is contained in the words that transmit them. Words are the servants of vision, and vision is the essential ingredient in everything humans have ever created or accomplished, good or bad. It is impossible to build a bridge across a canyon, for instance, without first seeing it in your mind. Words are the machinery that move the picture from the realm of pure, solitary dream to objective reality.
But words matter, not just because they help us describe specific ideas; words matter because they have the power to transfer entire belief systems to others. What you see, you say. What you say, they’ll see. Then they’ll say it too, again and again—and a new paradigm is born out of a single unexamined set of words. Once that happens, those words form a Great Wall of “Truth” beyond which we no longer bother to look. (This is the psychological technology behind modern public relations and propaganda.)
Need an example? Here’s one nearly everyone can agree on: “It’s impossible to live without money.”
There was a time when these were just words. For many indigenous people, tucked away in remote regions of the world, that time persisted well into the twentieth century, until “progress” caused their homes to cease being remote. Like all our ancestors, they refuted the above words by the simple act of subsistence. Now, however, this lie has been repeated so loudly and so often that we rarely, if ever, ask ourselves if it’s true. In modern times, it’s hard to live without money, no doubt. But it is a long, long way from impossible. Someone who does challenge the idea behind the words is quickly bombarded with more words: hippie, anarchist, drop-out, un-American—or best of all—just plain crazy.
Words matter. That’s why it is important to stop once in a while and pay attention to the sea of words you paddle around in every day. What pictures do they paint? What boundaries do they draw? What possibilities do they murder?
One particular sentence has been on my mind recently. Anyone who has tuned in to the conversation about humanity’s problematic future will recognize it immediately. If you’ve begun to educate yourself about peak oil, climate change, loss of biodiversity, deterioration of food resilience and security, perennial warfare, economic instability, and so on, then you’re guaranteed to have run across it yourself.
Here goes: “Civilization is headed off a cliff.” Off a cliff.
Don’t get me wrong. Some days, examining the evidence does give you that spinning, stomach-sucking feeling you get when leaning too far out a window twenty floors up. It sometimes seems inevitable that, sooner or later, our next step will lead to a quick drop and a sudden stop—on the sharp rocks or pavement below.
But, aside from its epic, “doomy” entertainment value, I’ve concluded the image these words create isn’t doing anyone any good. For one thing, it implies only two possible outcomes (since the third, backing up, is unlikely): either gravity does its thing and life as we have known it is irrevocably over; or, somehow, after millennia of earthbound existence, we suddenly sprout wings and fly. (Sometimes we tell ourselves those wings will take the form of technological breakthroughs, and sometimes we hope for a spontaneous “shift” in consciousness to save us from suicide.) But, honestly, after lying awake all night, sweating in the dark, neither outcome sounds very plausible. The sun eventually comes up, the birds start jabbering about how good it is to be alive, and you put the whole thing on hold while your coffee drips and your bagel browns in the toaster. In other words, life has a habit of “going on”.
The fact is, so long as we see ourselves standing on a cliff’s edge, we’ll keep swinging unproductively between visions of full spectrum catastrophe and wishful thinking—a kind of circular paralysis—while real opportunity goes unnoticed. It feels a little like motion, but never gets us anywhere.
The alternative word-image I’ve stubbornly chosen for myself is not new or original at all. If anything, it’s even more cliché. But it is less dramatic, and less populated with doomsday forces and magical powers. By comparison to a life-and-death cliffhanger, it is almost boring—and, therefore, easy to dismiss as too tame to reflect the true urgency of our present predicament. Yet, when it comes to describing what happens when we take that next step forward—and the next, and the next—nothing beats the mental picture of standing at a crossroads.
“Civilization has come to a crossroads.”
Now, if you were attached to the “cliff” motif, but you’ve stayed with me this far, you may be inclined to imagine a Mad Max kind of crossroads—barren wasteland in every direction, zombies on wheels, gas gauge in your armored school bus on “E”, sun going down. Danger all around.
For the purpose of this discussion, may I humbly suggest something more in the Robert Frost genre? A green path that diverges in the woods, perhaps. I don’t mean to imply there aren’t dangers lurking in the forest, or that the choice before us isn’t momentous—far from it. No matter how you visualize it, we have all come to the turning point in the history of humanity, and the stakes couldn’t possibly be higher. But the “crossroads” picture confers some survival advantages (as an evolutionary biologist might put it) on those who adopt it. There is hope embedded in the imagery itself that can alleviate fear and even suggest solutions.
First, when you stand at a crossroads, whatever happens next will most likely unfold at walking speed. You have arrived here by taking single steps, one after the other, every day of your life. You’ll move on by single steps going forward. Lao Tzu wrote that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a solitary step. What he didn’t say was that it’s all single steps, every one as important as any other.
Second, even in the worst case scenario, you stand with both feet planted firmly on the ground, just like your forebears stretching back tens of thousands of years. The earth itself is your foundation. At the edge of a cliff, a stiff breeze or a moment of distraction can spell instant doom. Not so much on the road.
Third, though a hundred people may fall off a cliff at the same time, it can never be said they fell together. The image leaves no room for collective action or mutual support of any kind. But when you travel a road, you can always go in the company of others, each of you more secure, and less likely to panic when the wolves howl, than you would be if you went alone.
Finally, choosing one road or the other is usually not a do-or-die proposition. To get really lost takes dozens or hundreds of wrong turns. To find your way back again begins with the simple act of identifying the flaws in your decision-making process—and then choosing more wisely at the next crossroads. And the next, and so on.
At a crossroads, walking stick in hand, a pack on your back, in the company of fellow travelers, you are unlikely to fall to your doom, and you don’t need wings. All that’s required is one step, the next step. Then another. Each one is like an acorn: it contains a whole new forest of trees waiting to take root—and all the necessary momentum of great change.
This much is clear: we can’t go back. How we visualize—and verbalize—the way forward matters a lot. And don’t forget: the power of words to alter beliefs works both ways—to instill fear and despair, or hopeful determination . How you talk about the road ahead may well be the most world-changing thing you ever do.