Reclaiming Power

To put a problem
in perspective, name it

By Matt Steel
29 Mar 2016
10 min read

Photo: 
Viktor Jakovlev

I am greeted this morning by overcast skies. The temperature outside is 38°F, rather cool for spring in St. Louis. As I sit down in my rocking chair with a second cup of coffee, a spot of sunshine strikes my forehead through the window in my office. The clouds are dispersing, and I decide this would be a good morning for a run even though it is past nine a.m. and responsible people are arriving at work. My inner task master scolds me for this late start, but my body is itching to move so I ignore him, put on my running clothes, and take off.

I almost always run the same 4.5 mile route. Not having to think about where I’m going allows me to work up a good sweat while my mind wanders from prayer and planning to daydreaming or composing sentences in the hope that they won’t be lost by the time I sit down at my desk.

Upon reaching the large homes on Wydown Terrace, I slow to a walk. Spring is in full effect here. Blossoms of white, purple, and coral greet me, waving like anemones in the breeze.

In moments like these, I envy naturalists. That’s a magnolia, I know. There’s a fir tree of some sort, but I can never tell one subspecies from another. Those flowers – no idea. The climbing vines – same. The bone-white tree, scantily clad with bark that grew too small many years ago, I’d know that as a sycamore from a mile off. But it doesn’t take a Lorax to label that one.

I envy the naturalist because he knows the names of all these things. Names are talismans. They possess a power that is uncovered when written, unleashed when spoken. This is why ancient mythological heroes rarely revealed their true names. To reveal the hero’s secret name was to gain power over them.

In ancient Judaism the name of God, written as YHWH and commonly rendered as Yahweh today, was considered so sacred and powerful that its utterance was forbidden. To speak the name was to call down immense power, and like C.S. Lewis’s Aslan the God of the Torah is not a tame lion. Safer names like Adonai, i.e. Lord (literally “Lords” to imply majesty) were used instead.

In many Native American cultures a person’s name was never given at birth, but only earned in time by pivotal deeds or defining traits. To know a tribesman’s name was to know a part of his story. Naming a thing deepens our understanding of it and sets it apart, even if that understanding only happens on an intuitive or instinctual level that, paradoxically, defies words.This applies to situations, thoughts, and emotions even more than objects and creatures. To gain perspective on a problem and therefore to gain power over it, give it a name.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. … And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. … And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ … Then God said, Let us make man in our image, after our own likeness.’”

So begins Genesis, the biblical account of creation. We see two key things here about the power of words and the human condition.

1. God spoke the world into existence

Let me repeat that: God spoke the world into existence. Things were named, and they were brought into being. Whether the process unfolded over the course of aeons or within split seconds, this generative speech remains unfathomably potent if God did indeed create all things. The apostle John begins his gospel account with these words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … All things were made through him … .” He goes on to identify this Word as Jesus: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” This is striking and mysterious: speaker and word are inseparable. The creator is the word in Jesus’ case. This is the archetype of integrity.

2. God made mankind in his image

This refers to essence, not appearance. God made people with many of the same characteristics that are found in the holy Trinity. We make because we were made. We seek meaningful relationships because the Trinity is inherently communal. We seek transcendence because our intuition tells us there is more to existence than the physical realm. Granted, we lack the power of creation ex nihilo, i.e. from nothing; but we are makers nevertheless, and as such our words have real power, power that after some millennia of human existence we have yet to plumb.

Now, it’s obvious that the above theological concepts are, in my worldview, given. This faith is the central fact of my life. I realize that many if not most of you do not believe that God made the world, and so this notion of humans being made in God’s likeness might strike you as a nice poetic image at best, or a disgusting display of anthropocentric hubris at worst. So be it. And yet Atheists, Agnostics, Muslims, and Taoists alike know that words possess strange powers, especially when spoken. Although this is mysterious, it is abundantly observable.

Let’s try a little test by way of illustration. Think about a favorite passage from one of your favorite books. As soon as you’re able, locate that book and read the passage silently to yourself. Then find a loved one, make sure you have their undivided attention, and read that passage out loud to them. Read slowly, paying attention to both the meaning and the sound of the words.

What happens when you read this passage out loud? What do you feel? How does it impact the listener? How is the experience different from when you read it quietly to yourself without speaking? If you’re really present with the words and their meaning, there’s a high likelihood that you’ll get choked up with emotion as you read.

The spoken word has a peculiar impact. It is alive in a way that the written word can never be. The audience, be it one or one million, plays a vital role. Not only does the story become winged by breath, but it flies in a continual loop from reader to listener and back, speeding up or slowing down to the rhythm of body language and audible feedback.

I’m an avid reader, but my wife is not. So I read to her. And it never fails that a book I’ve read in silence takes on a deeper dimension when I read it again out loud. This is why we have poetry readings, after all.

Here is one of my favorite passages from The Maine Woods by Henry David Thoreau. I was struck by its beauty on the first reading, but when I read it to my wife, I wept.

“It is difficult to conceive of a region uninhabited by man. We habitually presume his presence and influence everywhere. And yet we have not seen pure Nature, unless we have seen her thus vast and dread and inhuman, though in the midst of cities. Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful. I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work. This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandselled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste-land. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made for ever and ever, – to be the dwelling of man, we say, – so Nature made it, and man may use it if he can. Man was not to be associated with it. It was Matter, vast, terrific, – not his Mother Earth that we have heard of, not for him to tread on, or be buried in, – no, it were being too familiar even to let his bones lie there, – the home, this, of Necessity and Fate. There was there felt the presence of a force not bound to be kind to man. It was a place for heathenism and superstitious rites, – to be inhabited by men nearer of kin to the rocks and to wild animals than we. We walked over it with a certain awe, stopping, from time to time, to pick the blueberries which grew there, and had a smart and spicy taste. Perchance where our wild pines stand, and leaves lie on their forest floor, in Concord, there were once reapers, and husbandmen planted grain; but here not even the surface had been scarred by man, but it was a specimen of what God saw fit to make this world. What is it to be admitted to a museum, to see a myriad of particular things, compared with being shown some star’s surface, some hard matter in its home! I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one, – that my body might, – but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! – Think of our life in nature, – daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, – rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?”

Read the above passage in silence, and if it resonates with you then read it out loud in the presence of another person. Speak the last few sentences with feeling and volume, giving special emphasis to words in italics. Did you not tremble to speak them? Didn’t some energy rise in your chest, some current throb beneath your temples?

Reclaiming power through words

I write these words because I am trying to make sense of recent events in my life that have left me battered, bruised, and brokenhearted. I’ll outline them in brief.

In 2015, I left an unhealthy business partnership. It felt like a divorce, and I’m still processing how and why things fell apart. From there, I moved immediately into working on a Kickstarter campaign to fund a new illustrated edition of Thoreau’s Walden with the hope that it would provide just enough leverage to start a career in book publishing. I realized a few years ago that my personal mission is to give great stories the form and visibility they deserve. This was a dream project for me, and I’ve never been so engrossed in a creative endeavor.

Sadly, despite many hours of hard work and support from some of the world’s best crowdfunding experts, the campaign fell short of its fundraising goal. Though I found a small, passionate audience, learned several sharp lessons, and still plan to publish the book, it will be a purely break-even side project, and a very slow-paced one at that.

This felt like a death.

For several years, my wife and I have been looking for an opportunity to move to Charleston, South Carolina. This would place us near family, ocean, palm trees, and the charming Low Country culture – the state’s approval of Trump for the Republican candidacy notwithstanding.

For various reasons, the dream of living in Charleston is farther from materializing than ever before. We’re feeling stuck.

In the aftermath of these events my motivation has dwindled to an all-time low. As a self-employed husband and father of three (number four is due in August – surprise!), this is a terrifying place to be. My effectiveness as a provider is directly linked to my productivity. These days, I can barely muster the energy to do the work in front of me.

Something must change, and quickly. I need to reclaim my energy, and besides rest, creative output is the best way to make that happen. So starting Saturday, March 26th, 2016, I’m going back – all the way back – to the beginning. To the Word, and to words, the place where my imagination was kindled in my earliest memories. To the holy activity of writing where “I feel His pleasure” most acutely, in the words of Olympic runner Eric Liddell. To the letters that first inspired me to become a graphic designer. I will name some things, and then I intend to put them behind me.

I call this paralyzing fear Resistance. Get behind me. (Thank you, Steven Pressfield.)

I call this quagmire of low motivation Despondency. Get behind me.

I call the pain of the last ten months Transformation. Lord, have mercy.

I’ve made a promise to myself, and now I’m putting it in writing for anyone who cares to read, so that you can hold me accountable. Every morning except Sundays, I’ll wake up around five a.m. and write for at least one hour. I plan to continue this practice for as long as possible.

I’ll write about whatever is on my mind: questions, musings, fading fragments of dreams, in both prose and verse. Topics could range from design and media to philosophy, parenting, or surfing. Occasionally something might coalesce into an essay. Everything else will fall as loose leaves into my journal. Eventually, there will be a book. Scratch that: there will be many books, if I’m blessed with enough time and resources. I’m going to give, and give, and give.

An homage to Thoreau is something I still intend to finish, and perhaps there will be other updated classics. But I am full of my own words. It’s selfish to keep them bottled up.

For several years, my writing lived almost exclusively only on Medium. But after the Kickstarter campaign ended, it became clear that I needed a website that would serve as a home base for both my design consulting and writing. Medium is wonderful, but as a designer I grew tired of the homogeneity, of my stories appearing in a typeface that I didn’t and wouldn’t choose. It was time to create my own platform.

What on earth does this have to do with making money and providing for a family of six? I have some ideas, but they’re still percolating. I’m available for branding and design work in the meantime. And at any rate, I didn’t sit down to write a sales pitch or a business plan today. I wanted to give you something. I wanted to name some things for my own understanding and healing. I wanted to reconnect with the creative power that I know is constantly flowing through all things. And maybe this will inspire you to harness the power of your own words and use them for good. That would be wonderful.

Till next time, may your life be blessed.

Next story: One More Wave

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