I’ve been challenged by words lately. I usually come by them easily, but right now writing is a chore. Today I began thinking maybe this problem is less personal, and more just “in the air,” something we as an entire country are grappling with.
I began thinking about my recent struggles with words after having coffee with a Six Nations friend this morning. We had a lovely, long conversation. In part, we spoke about the similarities and differences between the ways we conduct ceremony. For instance, he does not conduct ceremony at night. There are, for him, just too many ways one may make mistakes, and cause problems. Dark spirits, who can create all manner of ills, are around, and night is the time those who call Evil, work.
I was taught to conduct ceremony primarily at night, when the spirits are close and attentive. Yes, unpleasant spirits are there in the darkness, along with people and creatures we best avoid. But the helping spirits and ancestors are active and engaged, so we approach them.
One thing, among many, we agreed on is the power of intention and words. For First Nations peoples, ceremony is a vehicle for intention. Words are a vehicle for creation. (This is mirrored in the Judeo-Christian tradition, where the Bible suggests the world originated from sound and word, through the intention of the Creator.) The spirits like sweet speech, and listen closely both to our words and thoughts. They care about the state of our hearts and the intentions behind our words.
Words also shape the emotional environments in which we live. An angry, demeaning, boss, lover, or co-worker can bring heartbreak and despair. When I work with couples and families, I support the people to develop speech that is caring, playful, and warm. I remind them relationships flourish when ninety percent of interactions are positive, and when conflicts are handled with mutual concern and respect.
This view seems to be a minority position in the United States today. In a recent poll, most persons asked said language was not to blame for the Saturday shootings of a judge, Congresswoman, and others in Arizona. Republicans overwhelmingly rejected the idea that hate speech was a major contributor to the events. Democrats were more closely divided. It seems difficult for people to imagine their words having force.
I have always been taught, and know deep in my being, words, and the emotions they evoke, are powerful. Speech calls the spirits. When someone suggests a person, or group of people, is somehow less than human, or should be harmed, disturbed, angry spirits are drawn in. Those hurtful spirits attach themselves to people and situations, stirring up the anger and hatred upon which they feed. Harm follows. First Nations people know this well.
We are called to be mindful of our intentions and words, for the personal, and communal, dreams we live are shaped by them. When we pretend our words and thoughts have no power, we seed strife, and feed Evil. In doing so, we create the conditions for great suffering. At this moment in time, our collective problems are large; despair and fear are waxing. It is crucial we gather ourselves, consider the implications of our words and intentions, and begin to shape a more sustainable, livable, dream. This is hard work, rescuing words from those who would grow hopelessness and conflict, who use the dark to create suffering. It is good work.