Words, like bridges, should be trustworthy and safe

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January11, 2006

Well, how are we doing so far at keeping our New Year's resolution to be impeccable with our words? That was a suggestion in last week's column based on Miguel Ruiz's book The Four Agreements: that we would strive to use our words to build each other up, and not to destroy each other.

From all the responses I've received, it's clear that many of you are of like mind.

"I look forward to that day when politicians take their word seriously," said Cochrane coffee companion Ginette Mitchell, writing from Moscow. "I think the world would be a lot better for it. At least we would know where things stand."

This sentiment was echoed in a phone call from Ernest Wesley, chief of the Wesley First Nation at Morley. He pointed out how language – or more specifically, the abuse of language – was used as a weapon against the First Nations. "That's what colonization is all about," he said.

Feather Mills, Redwood Meadows stained glass artist, wrote:

"I've had a long-standing love affair with words. One of my favourite quotes is from the movie The Last Emperor, a little tidbit spoken, with impeccable timing of course, by Peter O'Toole: 'You must know how to say what you mean, in order to mean what you say.'"

Calgary coffee companion Ron Nowell links the use of our words to the very nature of God. "In the beginning was the Word," he quoted from the Gospel of John. "This column is a good wakeup call to use words for good," Ron wrote.

From several coffee chats I had around town, an analogy to engineering became clear: Our words are like bridges that take us from one place to another. As such, it is incumbent upon us to make sure our words are trustworthy and dependable.

When traveling across a great bridge – the Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver, for instance – we assume the engineers involved in its design and construction have done their homework well and have built a bridge that will take us safely from one shore to the other.

So with words – and especially the words of politicians, religious leaders and teachers. Is it not reasonable to expect that such people have considered well what they mean and mean what they say?

After all, like bridge builders, they too are attempting to take us on a journey from point A to point B, a journey of far greater importance than simply getting to work in the morning.

Of course, there are times when a bridge has to be closed for repair. At such times, it is morally and legally obligatory that work crews blockade the access to the bridge and put up warning signs with words such as "Bridge Out."

Wouldn't it be nice if the purveyors of words would do the same, too, when their thinking and words cannot take the listener safely from point A to point B? Perhaps such people could carry with them a small tent card to place on a speaker's rostrum or coffee table: "Brain Out."

At least we wouldn't be able to say we weren't forewarned.

There's another abuse of words that also came up in the past week's coffee chats: destroying another's reputation through slander and defamation, often for the purpose of elevating oneself or one's organization at the expense of another.

And this has as much to do with the one who listens to a slander as to the one who tells it. After all, it takes at least two to make a lie work: one to tell it, and one to believe it.

Fortunately, our courts recognize the seriousness of such abuse and provide appropriate remedies.

And not without good reason. As one proverb puts it, "A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches." There are few things as important as a good reputation built up over a lifetime.

But I think I'll save this theme till a future column for more detailed development.

On a more positive note, I'd like to close with reference to a series of columns I put together a couple of years ago. It was in response to a question I raised of our readers:

What is the most beautiful word in the English language?

That series holds the record for the most responses I've ever received – well over a hundred! – and resulted in words like authenticity, integrity, kindness, beauty, friendship, family, forgiveness, share, and trust.

Of all the most beautiful words you suggested, however, there were three that stood overwhelmingly at the top of the list: happiness, peace and love.

And that's my wish for you this week.

© 2006 Warren Harbeck

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