In 6th grade I had a teacher who taught that each person is allotted a set number of words to speak in a lifetime. Use up your words and you’ve reached the end of your life. Regardless of the pedagogic inappropriateness of teaching this to a class of 11 and 12 year old girls, I was intrigued and wanted to know exactly how many words that translated into, for me and the entirety of my life. But I don’t remember ever learning the answer or whether the idea captured my attention in any long-term fashion. Whether it had me changing any of my talking behaviors, I can’t say for sure. I’m a middle child, sandwiched by two sisters and two brothers. Talking is often what it took to get noticed.
Writing, on the other hand, is incredibly difficult for me. In the first part of my life I spent many days staring at worksheets and empty notebook pages willing the homework words to write themselves. Time ran from me while trying to complete essay-style assignments and exams and in the process some of my self-esteem bled out. I couldn’t quite reproduce what the teachers wanted, not that I didn’t have something to say. I wonder if written words count against the lifetime word allotment – I wonder if they, too, deplete some aspect of living. I can’t say for sure, but it seems to me that the cumulative amount of time I’ve spent not writing words drained some piece of my life’s energy. My family portrait includes two journalists – each one a bookend on opposite sides of my life. I wonder what they have to say on the subject.
I love journaling, in fact, I love the entire journal experience. The journal, the paper, the pen – shopping for journals, and finding perfect journals to give as gifts to others. I have a journal from just about every stage of my life, with pages filled of words overflowing, words crowding into the margins and spiraling along the edges. I started my journal career in middle school writing my deepest secrets in a diary that had a gold lock and two shiny keys. The best secret was that my words were unaccounted for and I wasn’t accountable to the laws of grammar, discourse or sentence sequencing. The worst secret was when I found out words matter – and no matter where you secretly write them or how quietly you whisper them – there are always repercussions. Especially the ones you don’t anticipate. Like when my little brother used the key to unlock my secrets and my words spilled out of his mouth. I got in trouble for not telling the truth about ruining my mom’s party platter I ruined. He got in trouble for telling my truth.
Words matter. The sages say that what comes from the heart, enters the heart (in Hebrew: Mah she ba min halev nichnas el ha lev). Colloquially we say heartfelt words to mean genuine and sincere words. What’s curious to me is why we would ever say anything – write anything – that’s other than genuine and sincere? And yet we’re probably all guilty of it, and probably much more than we’d like to admit.
The word in Hebrew for truth is emet comprised of the 3 letters aleph, mem and tav. Much has been exegeted on the hidden truths embedded in the word. Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Tav the final letter – and balancing the middle is the mem. Truth needs to be balanced. The aleph is a silent letter – remove it from the word and what’s left is met – death. When truth is silenced…
What would our world look like if we opened our hearts to each other – if we could know (feel?) each other’s heart – and followed that path to build a world of good. In The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry Sue Annis Hammond describes a process that supports a culture of open-heartedness. She shares the assumptions behind AI including the ideas that: the words we use create our reality, what we focus on becomes our reality, and that there are multiple realities. The overarching assumption of Appreciative Inquiry is that in every system something works and change (for good) can be managed through identifying what works and finding ways to do more of it. How then, do we discern the truth in our reality? How do we find more ways of telling truths in a heartfelt manner that opens hearts and advances our culture – that breathes life into our words and worlds and depletes nothing.
“Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness,” says Parker Palmer in The Courage To Teach. “They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves. The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts – meaning heart in its ancient senses, as the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self.”
Parker continues, “As good teachers weave the fabric that joins them with students and subjects, the heart is the loom on which the threads are tied, the tension is held, the shuttle flies, and the fabric is stretched tight. Small wonder, then, that teaching tugs at the heart, opens the heart, even breaks the heart – and the more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be. The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning and living require.”
Living and learning do require community but sometimes the learned lesson is that living can break hearts and fracture communities. A recent exchange between a student and teacher from a high school in Texas have been at the heart of conversations echoing around the world the past few weeks. A conversation that otherwise might never have been heard was caught on video by a student and uploaded to YouTube where – at last count – reached more than 1.3 million views. That video was followed up with a 1:1 interview which has surpassed 3.8 million views. More than 5 million views of a student impassionately sharing his heartfelt sentiments – Teaching, he tells the teacher, and the world, has to touch students’ hearts in order for learning to happen. And inanimate instructional packets are not the way in.
“If you would just get up and teach them – there are kids in here who don’t learn like this – They need to learn face to face… You want kids to come in your class and get excited for this. You got to make them excited. You want a kid to change and start doing better – You got to touch his frickin heart – you can’t expect a kid to change if all you do is just tell him…”
His words have clearly touched many hearts – and some nerves. Volumes have been spoken and written in defense and opposition (just google Jeff Bliss) with the speakers and writers no doubt responding with words that come from their heart. Good thing most of us don’t take the word count allotment too literally! It’s almost too easy to pass judgment, to declare with certitude who is RIGHT and who is WRONG. The challenge is in keeping the heart open and identifying what IS working, where there ARE strengths and then, building more successes from there.
The motto at Duncanville High School proclaims “Core Beliefs: Engaging hearts and minds” and expounds on their school website that “at the core of Duncanville ISD’s beliefs is profound learning through purposeful engagement. We believe that purposeful engagement is the most effective long-term way to learn, for student and adult learners.” Clearly there’s something wonderful going on in that school and as the superintendent tells it, they’ve been engaged in a 5 year process that has engaged all segments of their community. If that isn’t a strength, a foundation from which to build forward – I’m not sure what is.
How do we discern the truth in our reality? How do we find more ways of telling truths in a heartfelt manner that opens hearts and advances our culture – that breathes life into our words and depletes nothing? The sages taught, what comes from the heart enters the heart and words do matter. For even if there’s no literal truth that substantiates the idea that when we’ve used up our word allotment we’ve used up some aspect of our living, words can – and do – deplete and destroy. Let us all find more ways of recognizing the best in people and the world around us – in affirming past and present strengths, successes and potentials and to perceive those things that give life to living systems.
I wonder where blogging and tweeting fall on the lifetime word allotment spectrum. I wonder if there’s a way to make a deposit into the word-bank.