When writer Rick Bragg was young and struggling to find his way in journalism, he won a prestigious fellowship to Harvard. While there, he felt out of place. He hadn’t finished college, and he was in classes with people who were pursuing graduate degrees. He was surrounded by urbane Easterners; and he saw himself, and was sure others saw him, as a solitary redneck from Alabama. Legendary newspaperman Bill Kovach befriended Rick, encouraged him, and told him he was gifted. Bragg told Kovach about a newspaper editor who once sneeringly asked him who taught him how to write. Bragg hadn’t known what to say. Kovach told him: “The next time somebody asks you that, you tell ‘em that it was God” (All Over but the Shoutin’, p. 229).
Words like Kovach’s, words which affirmed Bragg’s gifts and bolstered his confidence, are all-too-rare these days. There are more words in the communications-marketplace now than at any time in history: 24/7 television news; streams of information from blogs and newsfeeds; floods of email, tweets, Facebook posts, and text messages; stacks of newspapers and magazines; and books of every kind: e-books, audio books, books serialized on the web; and, still (thank goodness!) traditional books. If words were merely commodities, and we valued them on the basis of supply and demand, they’d sell at rock-bottom prices these days. Too few of those words flow from compassion.
Historians of American presidential campaigns caution me not to assume that there’s never been debates (mud-wrestling matches) between candidates which are as coarse and mean-spirited as the ones we are hearing between Trump and everyone else. Doubtless, those historian are right (I remember Lee Atwater, after all. If you aren’t aware of Atwater, it’s enough to know that he was a brilliant and cynical political strategist who built lower roads when the existing low ones weren’t low enough). With the warnings of historians in mind, surely it’s still the case that the bruising personal attacks of this campaign rank among the worst examples of verbal violence. Tearing-down, wearing-down, and, finally, taking-down are the goals.
Apparently, many Americans are so angry at myriad things that the politicians’ heated rhetoric vent their own simmering frustrations.
Despite the current climate of extreme harshness, I think we hunger for words which, like Kovach’s to Bragg, inspire hope, hearten the discouraged, and empower the tentative. An ancient Hebrew prophet whom we know as Isaiah describes a teacher who “knows how to sustain the weary with a word” (Isaiah 50:9). Paul, whose own words could sometimes scald those with whom he disagreed, nonetheless wisely urged people to say “only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29-30).
We need to hear sustaining, life-building and grace-giving words. Perhaps, even more, we need to speak them and, thereby, contribute to a growing chorus and resounding echo of words tuned by love.