The Story of Here Begins

To read the first post in this series, "The Story of Here Begins" click here.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Why Words Matter

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.


bb said...

Nice, even comforting, metaphor. But it seems to me to still beg the question. The road diverges in the yellow wood. One path leads, step by step to a new future--different (we can't go back), lower energy, less industrial, greater community; a good future. The other path (business as usual/techno salvation) leads, as you might guess, to the edge of a cliff. So--is there still enough path ahead to allow room for a divergence of ways? Instead of jumping, maybe we are adapting to life on the edge.
BTW, this is a great series. I'm glad I found it.

Alan Ray said...


Excellent observation. My purpose was not to suggest that falling off a cliff is impossible, just that at this point we are unlikely to do it in one step. I do think there is still room for multiple steps between here and there. But if you already see yourself teetering on the brink, then fear limits what you believe is possible.

And...I'm glad you found The Story of Here too. It's nice to have company for the trip.

Be well!

Brian said...

Thank you for the gentle reminder of the power of words to shape our thoughts and our belief systems.

Alan Ray said...


You're welcome, and thanks for the encouragement.


Michael Irving said...


I am writing because I find fault with your vision. I know that sounds like a stupid way to start a conversation, however, it is the best I can do. I’m pretty sure you will dismiss my concern as blather coming from someone unable to make the appropriate paradigm shift enabling a move forward. So be it.

I would like to make the jump in thinking that would allow me to see the future as one bathed in sunlight, full of warmth, fellowship, adventure. I’d like to think that travel into the future will be taken in a series of small steps, each testing the footing, supported by a staff that allows us to maintain our balance and indeed to step back to safer ground if the way seems too soft or unstable. I wish I could see the path forward as a well-worn road leading into a benign forest. But that is what it would be, a wish. I think that the problems you enumerate were generally caused by wishful thinking; the idea that merely hoping something will be true will make it so.

I like the term magical thinking and use it often when I consider the various techno-fixes that people think will move us to a new world. I use it also when I’m considering the fatalistic “god will provide” thinking that religions evoke.

With great effort (and I have hardly made the whole transition) I have been going through a paradigm shift. It is a shift in the opposite direction from the one you are suggesting, however, away from the just keep plugging along and everything will be okay world you espouse, and toward recognizing that it is, in fact, a cliff. I think that we are at a place where grasping the reality of our current situation, staring it right in the eye rather than looking away, is the proper mind set. We are facing unprecedented changes ahead; climate, food depletion, water scarcity, peak oil, economic collapse, etc. Finding an easy way forward on a global or national scale seems increasingly unlikely. The powers-that-be seem much more interested in maintaining their power and status than in making the hard choices necessary to change the “cliff” to even a steep hill. Facing the situation, assessing the likely or possible outcomes, and then doing what we can on an individual basis is maybe the best we can do.

Evoking the Mad Max scenario is just erecting a straw man. There is no reality there and by using it you have made the future into a different kind of either/or situation, i.e., it is either Mad Max or the crossroads. I’ll give you a different kind of “either/or” situation. You live in Phoenix, Arizona. You are sure there will be a water shortage in the near future. You are convinced the situation will be very bad, very soon. Do you treat it like being in a speeding car careening toward a cliff-edge, something requiring your immediate attention? Or do you adopt a laid-back, it will be okay, it’s not a “do-or-die proposition” attitude?

Words matter.

Michael Irving

Suzi Gravenstuk said...

Alan, my recent concentration for research has been how Media reports Suicides and suggestions without impacting freedom of speech.

In a general sense, this article is very appropriate. I hope it is okay with you if I include this article in my resources.

Thanks, Suzi

Michael Irving said...


I hate the freakin' Google.

Sorry for the mess. I guess I'm just not literate enough to make technology work for me. Guess I need training wheels.

Michael Irving

Alan Ray said...

Suzi, by all means, use the material in your research. It sounds like you are working on an important project.

Michael, I strongly agree with nearly everything that you expressed in your comment. We are far closer in viewpoint than you might think, which is evidence that I didn't do a very good job of communicating what I think. Those words again!

You aren't the only one to raise these objections, so I've decided to address them in next weeks post "Why words matter--part 2". Tune in then and I'll see if I can make myself more clear. Thanks for being part of the conversation in such a thoughtful way.