Words with Shadows

I do a lot of traveling and really enjoy it. Often, when I tell friends that I’m heading for the airport, they offer a send-off like “Be careful!” or “Have a safe trip, Jean.”

I know I’m supposed to feel reassured, as if a wish for safety could protect me from harm. But I always feel a shudder of nervousness instead. The word “safe” summons up all the things that can go wrong on a trip: kidnapping, a downed plane, a false arrest. My own preferred sendoff when friends are traveling is “Have fun!”

Many words come equipped with shadows. “There’s nothing to worry about” is something that people say only when a situation really is worrisome. “You can count on me” is a reminder that the person I’m depending on might bail out.

I’m remembering the look of panic on my husband’s face one time when we were leaving for a trip and I mentioned a phone call I’d made to our credit card company. “There won’t be any problem paying for our room,” I blithely told him. Big  mistake. He couldn’t relax until the desk clerk gave us our room key many hours later.

Shadows tend to make their appearance when we least expect them. Think of a parent who’s trying to warn a teenager about the perils of experimenting with drugs and sex. Hidden within your warnings is an ominous message: Doing these things is a possibility for you.

The same goes for religious parents trying to share their faith: implicit in their testimony is the possibility of not believing. And the same principle applies to atheists explaining why they don’t believe in a deity: their words are creating the very concept they’re trying to inoculate their children against.

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Today I’m going to talk about two words that can cast dark shadows: renewal and community. My point is not – of course – that you should avoid these useful words. What I’m hoping is to raise your awareness of the subtle and mysterious ways that words can complicate our lives.

Many years ago I was a member of a spiritual group that astounded me with its warmth and fervor…until things started to go wrong. No matter how hard I tried, I just didn’t fit in. It was mystifying: I’d never had trouble making friends before, and no one seemed to know what was wrong.

I finally decided that this particular group of people needed to rethink the way they practiced their faith, and I didn’t last long there. But there was always a nagging feeling that I had missed something important.

Much later I realized that shadow words were causing many of the problems.

Many members had attended a three-day spiritual workshop that had an amazing impact on the participants: people positively glowed when they came back. But here’s the thing: the words that shaped those workshops – renewal and community – had shadows that undermined the spiritual goals of love and unity.

Think about renewal. You renew library books and insurance policies because they’re expiring or going out of date. So a group that emphasizes renewal risks sorting its members into two categories. One contingent is refreshed, restored, and renewed. The other contingent (people like me – sigh) is stale, out of date, and expiring.

Another word that defined those workshops was community, and it too had a dark shadow: isolation, alienation, and loneliness. A workshop that creates its own community risks leaving everyone else shivering in the cold.

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You may be wondering if there’s a way to avoid those splits. I think the answer is yes – if you’re aware of the shadows lurking nearby. Those workshop participants could have been reminded that renewal and community are flexible terms. Everyone feels spiritually stale sometimes, and we all know the how it feels to be cut off and disconnected from other people.

Another possibility is to search for a word with a less threatening shadow.  Instead of a renewal weekend, you could plan a retreat. Now your workshop is offering a respite for anyone who’s busy, preoccupied, distracted, rushed, or overworked. Who today doesn’t fall into that category?

My larger point, of course, is that we all need to pay close attention to our word choices. Language (as I never tire of explaining!) is not the inert, lifeless tool we often take it to be. Words have mysterious powers and hidden messages. Start listening for the shadows  that travel with expressions we use every day: “Be safe.” “No problem!” “Don’t worry.” “Trust me.” “My feelings for you will never change.” Uh-oh….

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