Words Create Worlds, Part 2: Rebecca Solnit and Calling Things by their True Names
This is the second essay in the series published in The Badger, Autumn/Winter (10/3/19), Year 5, Volume 2, pages 52-63. Thanks to The Badger for permission to reprint!
What we call things creates not just discourse, but reality. The words that we use and the words that we do not use lead us in certain directions and have different effects. Words are not just words, they are tools that shape, and give expression to, reality.
Words are Spiritual & the World is Spiritual
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything that was made, (John 1:1).
Neil Douglas-Klotz renders this from Aramaic as:
In the very Beginningness
was, is and will be existing
the Word-Wisdom of the One,
the ongoing Word and Sound
the Message and Conversation
that has not stopped
and has never started
because it is always Now.
Advaita Vedanta of Hinduism also recognizes the importance of the Word, as Nataraja Guru has written in The Word of the Guru: The Life and Teachings of Narayana Guru:
There is nothing to know beyond the Word. The known, knowledge, and the knower meet in one presence in the Word…In never-ending beats, it continues in quantum pulsations of energy, to be calculated in split seconds or in millions of light-years, while new and unknown galaxies leap within the ken adding to wonder that is dumbfounding.
Similarly, Southern Ute mystic, Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow) sees the connection between sound and reality, as he writes, the “true basis for Universal Intelligence is sound. Out of sound comes everything.” It is through perception that creation comes into being. “We are perceivers, and it is in our act of perceiving that vibrations become sounds, smells, feelings and colors. In our act of perceiving, things take form.”
Words create our reality and our current reality is in crisis.
Across the world, in many different countries, politicians are rising to power using words of separation rather than words of union. This political crisis is a spiritual crisis because using words to create reality is a spiritual act.
In our book, Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality, Joseph Rael and I felt that we had to include something about the pathway that the world is heading down, a pathway that can lead to a loss of peace, to the start of war. The world is currently on a pathway that is being paved with words of separation: racist words, belittling words, disrespectful words, manipulative words, fundamentalist words, totalitarian words, and fascist words. Common to all of these words is an underlying attempt to recreate a world of separation, isolation, and hate. Joseph has long been committed to world peace and he has worked toward this through the development of his Sound (Peace) Chambers on four continents. In Becoming Medicine we write about Spiritual Democracy (you can download that chapter here), which is the opposite of fundamentalism―it is about opening our hearts to others and seeking to act in such a way that encourages others to open their hearts. Fundamentalism is idolatry―the worship of a fixed thing. Spiritual Democracy is about allowing ourselves to be shaped and continually reshaped by Breath-Matter-Movement, by Wah-Mah-Chi (the Tiwa word for God). I came across Walt Whitman’s concept of Spiritual Democracy in the work of Stephen Herrmann in his book, Spiritual Democracy.
Adopting the big idea of Spiritual Democracy, the realization of oneness of humanity with the universe and all its forces, can help people feel joy, peace, and interconnectedness on an individual basis. It can also inspire us to undertake sacred activism, the channeling of such forces into callings that are compassionate, just, and of equitable heart and conscience, and give us some tools to start solving some of these grave global problems, while uniting people on the planet.
The Crisis of this Moment is Linguistic
Rebecca Solnit’s Call Them by Their True Names (2018) examines the uses and abuses of language in politics, stating that “one of the crises of this moment is linguistic.” The linguistic crisis confuses us about what is real, what is true, about who we are, and about our relationships with each other and the natural world. “Calling things by their true names,” Solnit writes, “cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness. It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.” Solnit has long been concerned with the use of language and power in her writings on hope, trauma, community, and environment. She writes artful and thoughtful memoir that weaves in the political and the creative spirit. Her writings are not overtly spiritual, but I imagine she would be comfortable with the concept of spiritual democracy as she writes about human rights, human dignity, environment, and on women’s and indigenous rights. Her writing is a form of activism and she encourages us to make the world a better place. She sees that we are currently going down a pathway of brutality and if we do not start calling this pathway by its true name, we risk being swept into deeper brutality. “Once we call it by name, we can start having a real conversation about our priorities and values. Because the revolt against brutality begins with a revolt against the language that hides brutality.”
One of the elements of the current pathway the United States (as well as many other countries across the world) is walking down is a pathway of isolation. Isolation and separation are based on dividing people into the “good and the bad,” those who belong and those who do not, those who have rights and those who do not. Anyone with a sense of history can pick out words and phrases that were used in racist, totalitarian, fascist regimes: “enemy of the people,” “those are some very bad people,” and “send them back.”
Solnit writes about what she calls a “Glorious Disconnect:”
If you boil the strange soup of contemporary right-wing ideology down to a sort of bouillon cube, you find the idea that things are not connected to other things, that people are not connected to other people, and that they are all better off unconnected.
Solnit points out how this underlying philosophy of disconnection and separation, which results in concrete policies, is also behind the current proliferation of “fake news.” “Taken to its conclusion,” she writes, “this worldview dictates that even facts are freestanding items that the self-made man can manufacture for use as he sees fit.” This worldview influences our interdependence and interrelatedness with each other and the environment. In the mania to deregulate social and environmental protection, she sees the attempt to “deregulate meaning.”
If you begin by denying social and ecological systems, then you end by denying the reality of facts, which are, after all, part of a network of systematic relationships among language, physical reality, and the record, regulated by the rules of evidence, truth, grammar, word meaning, and so forth. You deny the relationship between cause and effect, evidence and conclusion; or, rather, you imagine both as products on the free market that one can produce and consume according to one’s preferences. You deregulate meaning.
. . .
And this is how the ideology of isolation becomes nihilism, trying to kill the planet and most living things on it with a confidence born of total destruction.
This pathway of isolation is rooted in and creates loneliness, in fact, Solnit has an essay entitled, “The Loneliness of Donald Trump.” She writes about this loneliness coming out of power and privilege that insulates and isolates, until,
In the end there is no one else in their world, because when you are not willing to hear how others feel, what others need, when you do not care, you are not willing to acknowledge others’ existence.. . . When you don’t hear others, they become unreal, and you are left in the wasteland of a world with only yourself in it. That surely makes you starving, though you know not for what, if you have ceased to imagine that others exist in any true, deep way.
Gerald Arbuckle, a New Zealander living in Australia who is a Catholic priest and anthropologist, also sees the current crisis of global political and religious fundamentalism as being rooted in loneliness and creating loneliness. His follow-up book to Fundamentalism at Home and Abroad (2017) is Loneliness: Insights for Healing in a Fragmented World (2018). Arbuckle points out that the United States is extreme in its individualism and that the “American Dream” includes contradictory values of competitive utilitarian individualism and egalitarianism. This pits the “rights of the individual” against the “common good.” The founding “myth” of the United States includes this tension between individualism (which when extreme creates isolationism and loneliness) and egalitarianism (which can create community and equality).
Arbuckle draws on his training as a cultural anthropologist to understand how groups function and to diagnose the various forces leading to our current epidemic of loneliness and fundamentalist totalitarianism. He points out how and why people use tactics of scapegoating, splitting and separating people into us and them, into “member” and “stranger.” He also draws on his training as a Catholic priest to point out how we can treat the current epidemic through creating love between neighbors. “The universal call to love one’s neighbor commits us to struggle for the common good. Individualism and individual and corporate greed contradict this imperative,” he points out. He quotes Pope Francis calling for a revolution of tenderness. “A single individual is enough for hope to exist, and that individual can be you. And then there will be another ‘you,’ and another ‘you,’ and it turns into an ‘us.’ . . . When there is an ‘us’ there begins a revolution [of tenderness].”
Doing the Work that Matters
Both Solnit and Arbuckle tells us that our civil society and spiritual values are being degraded and negated. They point out how our current global epidemic of loneliness and totalitarianism is rooted in our use of language and how we use words to create worlds. We have a choice between worldviews of separation and worldviews of union. Making this choice begins with the words we use to describe and create reality. One of our choices is whether we focus on “me” or “we.” ME and WE are actually mirror images of each other, if you place WE over ME, you can see that they both are reflections as in a lake. There is a saying, which I have seen variously attributed, that “When you replace I with We, Illness becomes Wellness.” The words that we use create different stories, and we need to choose whether we want stories of inclusion (we) or stories of exclusion (me). As Rebecca Solnit writes:
The only power adequate to stop tyranny and destruction is civil society, which is the greater majority of us when we remember our power and come together. The job begins with opposition to specific instances of destruction, but it is not ended until we have made deep systemic changes and recommitted ourselves, not just as a revolution, because revolutions don’t last, but as a civil society with values of equality, democracy, inclusion, full participation—a radical e pluribus unum, plus compassion. This work is always, first and last, a storytelling work, or what some of my friends call ‘the battle of the story.’ . . . To sustain it, people have to believe that the myriad small, incremental actions matter.
. . .
To believe it matters—well, we can’t see the future, but we have the past. Which gives us patterns, models, parallels, principles, and resources; stories of heroism, brilliance, and persistence; and the deep joy to be found in doing the work that matters. With those in hand, we can seize the possibilities and begin to make hopes into actualities.
Doing the work that matters, this is what we are called to do. Joseph Rael reminds us that work is worship, so this work of activism, this work of story, this work of loving our neighbors, is a sacred work that we are called to do and that we are called to put into words so that we can create (instead of a world of hate, separation, and war) a world of love and peace.
Worlds Create Worlds.3
Madeleine Albright’s Fascism: A Warning.
Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.
Throughout 2019 I was writing these Words Create Worlds essays that appeared in The Badger. In working with Joseph Rael, writing our next book, Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality, I felt compelled to write about the responsibility of mystical, visionary, and shamanic experience—that we must work toward “Spiritual Democracy.” At its deepest point, mystical experience leads to an awareness that we are all one and this comes with a responsibility to challenge words of separation which ultimately lead to fascism. Mystical experience is a pathway that leads us to question who we are and gives us a responsibility to use our words wisely to create worlds where we are becoming the medicine that our world needs. As Rumi says, “We are pain and what cures the pain.”
 David Kopacz & Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow), Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality. Seattle & Marvel: Condor & Eagle Press, 2020.
 Life Between the Trees blog, https://lifebetweenthetrees.com/2012/08/06/words-create-worlds-monday-morning-parable/. I first came across a shorter instance of this quote in the Omid Safi reference below.
 John 1:1, The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Edition, Second Catholic Edition. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006.
 Neil Douglas-Klotz, Original Meditation: The Aramaic Jesus and the Spirituality of Creation, 42.
 Nataraja Guru, The Word of the Guru: The Life and Teachings of Narayana Guru, 75, 78.
 Joseph Rael, Sound: Native Teachings + Visionary Art, 2.
 Steven Hermann, Spiritual Democracy: The Wisdom of Early American Visionaries for the Journey Forward, xiii.
 Rebecca Solnit, Call Them by Their True Names, 4, 1, 4.
 Ibid., 43.
 Ibid., 43.
 Ibid., 50.
 Ibid., 13, 15.
 Gerald Arbuckle, Loneliness: Insights for Healing in a Fragmented World, 215-216.
 Solnit, 184-185.
 Rumi, “We are the mirror as well as the face in it,” The Essential Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks, 106.