“Death and life are in the power of the tongue…” – Proverbs 18:21
I’ve been thinking a lot about words lately. It seems to me that a lot of people have forgotten that words have definitive meaning and that’s what makes us able to effectively communicate with one another. Language is crucial to the continuation of our development as a culture, for our productive growth as a community and society.
I’ve noticed that there are certain factions in our society that have co-opted particular words and they are trying mightily to change their meaning. My first reaction to that is, “Stop!” Changing the definitions of words that have been wholly accepted for generations in our country is dangerous and causes confusion and then chaos. That may seem like an exaggeration, but if you follow this practice to its logical conclusion, that’s what happens.
We need a concrete broadly accepted definition for any word to be able to commune with one another fruitfully. That’s what language is for.
Then, we need to return to the generally accepted habit of speaking to each other in civil tones with the intent of really listening and sharing ideas. As a woman who has spent a couple of decades of my life teaching etiquette to others, I am all about practicing the social graces as often as possible in our interactions with anyone and everyone we meet. For me, I view them all, I view you all, as my brothers and sisters so I try to speak in not only a civil tone but a friendly and even loving tone as often as I can. And I urge others to do the same. Every human being is deserving of our respect as they have the dignity of being loved into being by the Creator.
I’m observing that this behavior to speak in civil, polite tones to others is not being taught to children by their parents or by their teachers in too many instances. What else am I to think when I see the appalling lack of manners displayed pretty much daily in all sorts of venues? Children learn by what they are taught, but also by example. Too many of us are terrible examples to our younger generations. I am not perfect; believe me, I’ve had my moments that I am embarrassed or even ashamed to think about or mention. But I share this as much for myself as for the sake of anyone reading this. I write this to remind us all that we have an obligation for the sake of order and of honor, our own and that of others, to get back to civil discourse.
And we definitely need to remember the foundational meaning of words that we have read, heard, and spoken for decades and decades. When in doubt, I would suggest finding the dictionary definition on line. There are so many different dictionaries to choose from if one does an internet search. But one thing I’ve noticed when I’ve done those searches, is that the definitions are all the same. Our language does incorporate new words each year. It’s kind of fun to see what words or expressions have been added as our society and the world at large grows technologically, as new things are discovered, and in so many other ways.
But one thing we should be very careful of is changing the meaning of words to suit our narrative or agenda. It seems that this often occurs on one side of an issue and then, because of social media, more and more people pick up that word’s new meaning. But not everyone and, I daresay, not a majority. So those of us who still use a word with its proper meaning start to get a bit confused or certainly a bit (a lot?) frustrated when a word is no longer meaning, in certain circles, what it’s always meant. Enter confusion.
If it happens often enough with enough words, we reach a tipping point and then we enter chaos.
I say it’s time to remember the difference between connotation and denotation. I don’t know if they teach this in school any more but they did when I was a kid and when my own children were little. Denotation is the dictionary, definitive meaning of a word. Connotation is the general feeling or assumptions we have when a word is used, and that is more often than not negative, it seems to me.
For example, the word ‘Christian’ is defined as one who follows Jesus Christ whom she or he believes is our Redeemer and a Person of the Triune God. The connotation for some people can be very negative as they feel a Christian is a hypocrite, a bigot, a homophobe, an intolerant person. That may be how someone feels about a Christian, but that’s not the definition and, often, the connotative meaning is not who the Christian is. I would not say that Christians are perfect and above reproach as we are all human and so very weak and flawed. In fact, we are all of us, Christian and not, in need of a Savior. As the trite but true saying goes, “Christians are not perfect; but forgiven.” And, from a Catholic view, we are in need of forgiveness again and again. It’s not a ‘once and for all’ type of forgiveness the Lord gives us, because He knows us intimately and made us! We will fall again and again. He does forgive us all our sins when we seek forgiveness in true sorrow, but when we fail Him once again, we can always request a new start out of our regret and sorrow for rejecting the virtues and graces God gives us. If God forgave us once and then we could do whatever we pleased, even things unpleasing to God, that doesn’t make Him merciful; that makes God a chump. God is not a doormat. So, yes, we ask God’s pardon many times in our lives and He forgives us many times; we are in a constant conversion, hopefully growing closer to God, more holy as He is holy, along the way, if we only cooperate with Him.
For those who ‘define’ a Christian as a ‘bad’ person, we must remember that this is not an authentic definition but a connotation. Remember that, for every word, there is a true meaning and that we bring our own biases and life experiences to some terms in our lexicon.
Another thing that Christians should do is love everyone as our Savior loves everyone. We can do that, with God’s help. When we surrender to God and let Father, Son, and Holy Spirit take over, when we stop trying to be in control (we never really have been), we find true freedom. We are free to explore true beauty, goodness, and truth. We are free to love with “the love with which God loves.” – (Fr. Stephen Torraco)
Then we can will the good of the other, as St. Thomas Aquinas defines love. And yes, that is the quintessential definition of love. Love is a decision and it’s about sacrifice and selflessness. And it is only possible to love our neighbor and our enemy like that, with the grace of God. Grace is “a participation in the Divine life,” according to our Catechism. It is the greatest gift or favor that can bestowed on mortals. It allows us ‘in’ to the salvation that is promised us.
I think those of us who are definitive Christians need to stand up and be the Light Jesus our Redeemer calls us to be in the Gospels. In a world that seems to be getting darker (this is a metaphor, but that’s a grammar lesson for another time!), let us light up our portion of it with the light of Christ within us. Let’s light it up in the knowledge that God is love and we are loved, all of us, no matter how misguided or afraid or angry and hateful some of us might be. We are able to do so because the same Power that raised Jesus from the dead lives in each of us as believers. Lead with LOVE!
We may be yelled down, beaten down, drowned out, thrown out, but we will carry Joy within us because we know we are loved. And if our Leader was treated so terribly that He ended up betrayed by His closest friends, mocked by many fellow citizens and believers in His community, and finally made to suffer and die on an instrument of state torture and terrorism, we should not fear, but rejoice! I see it clearly now, and really for the first time. We have to be a Light and remember Who has the Victory! Jesus does. His resurrection and ascension prove that. And He is wanting us to follow Him! And so what looks like defeat in the eyes of the pitiable, misguided world, is the most amazing Victory in Heaven. Amen.