There is a famous, but likely apocryphal story about James Joyce. The way the story goes, a friend asked how his writing was coming. Joyce, who was famous for his agonizing over the right word, replied that he was struggling, having only written 7 words that day.
The friend, trying to be upbeat, said, ‘Well, that’s not bad – especially for you!”
To this, Joyce sighed, and said, “I guess not – but I’m also not sure what order they go in.”
I never have trouble with words. But sometimes, I’m not sure what order they go in.
The other day, I was on a Zoom meeting with other organizers from around the state. They were talking about ways we can shape our messaging to be more effective in bringing people into the fold, and they highlighted some copy I had written for a website as an especially good example of what we were striving for.
Another organizer pointed out that I had authored it, and then said, “Hugh is good with words.”
I am, it’s true. I’m good with words. I think it’s because I respect them so much.
Words are sacred things – they allow us to pass on wisdom, to share culture and history, to give meaning and shape to our collective experience. Imagine if each generation had to invent fire, or the wheel, or paper for itself. Our words make civilization possible.
And so I take the words seriously. In the Abrahamic traditions, there is this idea that the Universe was created by words being spoken into the void by the Creator, where nothing existed but chaos until the words gave it shape and order.
But, as I said, sometimes I’m not sure what to say. Sometimes, I don’t have words.
Like when I went through a spell about five years ago when I lost six people that winter to drug overdoses. The streets were filled with laced heroin, and it was killing people left and right. You watch people who had struggled to get and stay clean have a relapse – which happens – but this time, the relapse was fatal.
Or the couple who had struggled for years and years to get pregnant, who had a perfect pregnancy, and who lost their baby 48 hours before their due date. I don’t know what you say about that.
Or the time my friend Nancy had struggled to get clean after a life of sex work and drug use and then did, only to have a brain aneurysm and die. Or my friend Jimmy, who fought for a decade to get housing, and did, and got hit by a car the day before we were to help him move in.
Sometimes, there are no words that make sense.
Or when you see that a million people have died in the US from a massive, two-year-long pandemic, and yet we don’t have the political will to have healthcare that works.
But I still believe in the power of words.
In 2020, my Dad died from COVID, and I’ve written a lot about it. But nearly 1 million people have died from COVID in the US over the last two years. My dad’s death, while tragic, isn’t unique. It’s devastatingly common. Almost pedestrian at this point.
Because those million deaths represent many millions of people, like me, who are impacted by those deaths. Everything I felt – millions of people have felt those emotions over the last few years.
On one hand, it would be easy to say that I don’t have anything special to add to this conversation. How conceited must I be to believe that any words I can come up with would have any impact on anyone?
But I don’t think that. I don’t think I’m special.
But I also believe that we don’t do a good job in our culture of talking about things that scare us, that frustrate us, that hurt us. I think we are all a little broken, a little damaged, and that we all spend a lot of time trying to pretend that we’re not. And so we are carrying a heavy facade around with us because we are afraid to use our words to talk about the ways in which we are broken, lest we admit our imperfections to others, who are also imperfect, and also trying to hide it.
And I believe that, as Fred Rogers said, anything human is mentionable, and anything we can mention can be made more manageable and that by talking about things, they seem smaller and less scary.
But to get there, we have to use our words.