One of my friends has a saying which this natural-born skeptic has heard from time to time: “Take me at my word.”
It’d be a much easier world if people lived by that old-fashioned principle. It’s a good one. But it’s a disappearing phenomenon.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s sometimes felt the need for an interpreter when trying to engage people on their own terms. It seems a lot of time can be spent decoding what people really mean when they say things–everyone likes to establish their own personal qualifiers.
Usually, that’s okay. We all speak our own subtle dialect born out of our unique outlooks and experiences. But usually it’s not so much that we can’t understand each other.
Except for those times when communication becomes an ongoing wheel of personal spin doctoring. Except for those times when one of us doesn’t want to hear, or perhaps to be heard.
Good Old-Fashioned Idolatry
I’m pretty sure it’s a form of idolatry to pick and choose and interpolate/extrapolate so as to fill one’s social circle with imaginary friends and/or loved ones puppeted by real live bodies.
When we selectively reinvent the people around us to suit our preferences and comforts, or to cater to the pride we take in self-established certitude, we’re usurping the Creator’s position over other human beings. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a fine blend of blasphemy and schizophrenia.
Nonetheless, editorial listening is a refined art, one to whose seductions we all succumb sometimes. We hear what we think we’re supposed to hear, or we listen only for what concerns us.
But are those ghosts really in the room? Are they part of the conversation, or are they part of the fantasy created by the filters on our ears?
How shall we know?
I recall reading Shirley MacLaine in my teens. She had this notion that there is only one consciousness, that manyis an illusion to be resolved by achieving true awareness. If we could all raise consciousness, “we” would realize we are one.
If that is true, I thought, then when I achieve that consciousness, I will see everyone I thought I knew for the shadows they are, like a carnival’s hall of mirrors. Every relationship I’ve known will be a lost cause: “I,” whatever that turns out to be–and it won’t even be me as I know myself to be–will be all there is.
Everyone I’ve ever loved will have been a lie, and “I” will be utterly alone in the universe.
The thought left me so shaken by impending loss and loneliness that I could go no farther with the thought experiment.
Yet we live like this all the time, isolated by the illusory nature of our chosen perceptions. We make people into the image we want, and we throw them out like castoff toys when their true personhood breaks the mold we’ve invented for them. We fabricate an image of ourselves. It’s how we avoid having to take ourselves as we are. We say “friend;” we mean straw man. We say “mutual support;” we mean “prop up the case I’m making for my self-image.”
But fabrications unravel themselves, no matter how we stitch them together.
So what does this mean, “take me at my word”? Really, it’s a biblical phrase, casually paraphrased into modern English.
I don’t know the Greek or Aramaic from two thousand years ago, but I do know the formal English: “Truly, truly, I say to you.” The words of Jesus.
It’s a phrase of horrible, bone-grinding simplicity. It means trusting the plain assigned meaning, rather than trusting the image we make of it.
It means the actions and the words will align. It means the semantics will not belie the syntax.
It means that the person speaking is giving the listener the greatest possible chance of accurate understanding. It expresses an act of grace.
It means there is hope.
It seems utterly counterintuitive to say, “trust me, it means what it means.” It’s like saying, “I am that I am,” a statement for which we have no reference point. But then, that’s because we are so used to being politely lied to, and we’re so used to politely lying to ourselves. So used to inventing images, rather than accepting the reality.
Yet this is what my friend said when we first met: “Take me at my word.” And that’s when I felt at home. Because I recognized the meaning, though the words are a paraphrase; I’d heard it somewhere before.
And because I’ve long known: Without it, we are all shadows, alone.