I picked up a new traveling companion for this Lenten journey: Wendell Berry’s Standing by Words: Essays. The title essay begins,
Two epidemic illnesses of our time—upon both of which virtual industries of cures have been founded—are the disintegration of communities and the disintegration of persons. (14)
I added his word to my growing list: dis-aster, dis-grace, dis-courtesy, dis-courage; now, dis-integration. Tearing apart. Fragmenting. He continued his thought in his next paragraph.
What seems not so well understood, because not so much examined, is the relation between these disintegrations and the disintegration of language. My impression is that we have seen, for perhaps a hundred and fifty years, a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning. And I believe that this increasing unreliability of language parallels the increasing disintegration, over the same period, or persons and communities. (14)
Two things came to mind as I read his words. The first was a quote I saw from one of Donald Trump’s rallies, which seems a perfect example of meaningless speech.
Look. We can bring the American Dream back. That I will tell you. We’re bringing it back. Okay? And I understand what you’re saying. And I get that from so many people. ‘Is the American Dream dead?’ They are asking me the question, ‘Is the American Dream dead?’ And the American Dream is in trouble. That I can tell you. Okay? It’s in trouble. But we’re going to get back and do some real jobs. How about the man with that beautiful red hat? Stand up! Stand up! What a hat!
The second was a poem by Taylor Mali, a teacher/poet/performer, who has his own angle on Berry’s point in this poem, “Totally like whatever, you know?”
In case you hadn’t noticed,
it has somehow become uncool
to sound like you know what you’re talking about?
Or believe strongly in what you’re saying?
Invisible question marks and parenthetical (you know?)’s
have been attaching themselves to the ends of our sentences?
Even when those sentences aren’t, like, questions? You know?
because they used to, like, DECLARE things to be true, okay,
as opposed to other things are, like, totally, you know, not—
have been infected by a totally hip
and tragically cool interrogative tone? You know?
Like, don’t think I’m uncool just because I’ve noticed this;
this is just like the word on the street, you know?
It’s like what I’ve heard?
I have nothing personally invested in my own opinions, okay?
I’m just inviting you to join me in my uncertainty?
What has happened to our conviction?
Where are the limbs out on which we once walked?
Have they been, like, chopped down
with the rest of the rain forest?
Or do we have, like, nothing to say?
Has society become so, like, totally . . .
I mean absolutely . . . You know?
That we’ve just gotten to the point where it’s just, like . . .
And so actually our disarticulation . . . ness
is just a clever sort of . . . thing
to disguise the fact that we’ve become
the most aggressively inarticulate generation
to come along since . . .
you know, a long, long time ago!
I entreat you, I implore you, I exhort you,
I challenge you: To speak with conviction.
To say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks
the determination with which you believe it.
Because contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker,
it is not enough these days to simply QUESTION AUTHORITY.
You have to speak with it, too.
Now back to Wendell:
When we reflect that “sentence” means, literally, “a way of thinking” (Latin: sententia) and that it comes from the Latin entire, to feel, we realize that the concepts of sentence and sentence structure are not merely grammatical or merely academic—not negligible in any sense. A sentence is both the opportunity and the limit of thought—what we have to think with, and what we have to think in. It is, moreover, a feelable thought, a though that impresses its sense not just on our understanding, but on our hearing, our sense of rhythm and proportion. It is a pattern of felt sense. (53)
According to Genesis, the world was created by sentences. God spoke the universe into being: let there be light . . . and there was. When Moses asked whom he should say sent him to set the people free, God answered, “Tell them the verb To Be sent you. When John began to articulate the meaning of the Incarnation, he wrote, “In the beginning was the Word,” and then went on to say, “The Word became flesh”—a living, breathing sentence articulating the language of love, creating the pattern of felt sense that Berry describes: words that carry meaning, that offer life and hope, even in the midst of grief. In contrast to Trump, I offer some sentences that speak in the syntax of faith, hope, and love. First, hear these words from Martin Luther King’s speech, “Why We Can’t Wait.”
We were all involved in the death of John Kennedy. We tolerated hate; we tolerated the sick stimulation of violence in all walks of life; and we tolerated the differential application of law, which said that a man’s life was sacred only if we agreed with his views. This may explain the cascading grief that flooded the country in late November. We mourned a man who had become the pride of the nation, but we grieved as well for ourselves because we knew we were sick.
Naomi Shihab Nye calls us to integration in “Cross That Line.”
Paul Robeson stood
on the northern border
of the USA
and sang into Canada
where a vast audience
sat on folding chairs
waiting to hear him.
He sang into Canada.
His voice left the USA
when his body was
not allowed to cross
Remind us again,
What countries may we
What lines should we all
What songs travel toward us
from far away
to deepen our days?
And I close with this passage from Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, one of my favorite books. Two African ministers are talking together.
— This world is full of trouble, umfundisi.
— Who knows it better?
— Yet you believe?
Kumalo looked at him under the light of the lamp. I believe, he said, but I have learned that it is a secret. Pain and suffering, they are a secret. Kindness and love, they are a secret. But I have learned that kindness and love can pay for pain and suffering. There is my wife, and you, my friend, and these people who welcomed me, and the child who is so eager to be with us here in Ndotsheni – so in my suffering I can believe.
— I have never thought that a Christian would be free of suffering, umfundisi. For our Lord suffered. And I come to believe that he suffered, not to save us from suffering, but to teach us how to bear suffering. For he knew that there is no life without suffering.
Kumalo looked at his friend with joy.
—You are a preacher, he said.
May we edit our sentences in the grammar of grace, speaking in the syntax of togetherness, choosing words that speak the truth in love.