Life Saving Philosophy

How mental vigor and newfound clarity can change how we view the world and our place in it

Do you say what you mean?

I am struck by the power of language.

I am struck by the power of language.

It makes all the difference in a writer's work how ideas are presented. Words can softly lead to engagement and understanding or draw the reader into defensiveness and rejection. The same ideas can be greeted with very different results; it all depends on how. I watch philosophy students repeatedly respond as much to delivery as to the message of what they read. Is the author condescending to those who may disagree? Mocking? Dismissive of any other approach to environmental ethics, human rights, economic priorities? John Stuart Mill, Simone de Beauvoir, and Friedrich Nietzsche make many of the same claims, but their similarities often remain buried under their choice of words and tone of voice. How often do psychologists miss what they share in common due to rigidity of presentation? And we have a deadly display of politicians relying on sound bites laced with an undercurrent of antagonism to address vital issues facing our country today.

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In verbal exchanges, our way of cementing relationship, it makes all the difference how ideas and feelings are communicated. Socrates in ancient Greece and Confucius in more ancient China both insisted on the importance of the skill of making your words say what you mean. For these two strolling philosophers, careless words create untold damage. "Think before you speak" is neither an obvious nor commonly- practiced command, they chide, then and now. Words come fast and too easily; slow down and ensure that your language and your mind and heart are connected. What do Confucius and Socrates recommend until this connection between mouth and mind is a good one? SILENCE!

Do you say what you mean? Or is it...do you mean what you say?! How often do you, do I, think or exclaim "I can't believe I said that?" How can we train ourselves to use language with better intent and clarity? Here is an exercise that philosophers of all ages find illuminating. At the end of a class, or meeting, or party, or day, reflect on what you said. Learn to listen to yourself. Paying close attention to your voice and/or writing may be the best teacher. Child philosophers find this examination hilarious and worthy of much head-scratching. Older philosophers often find it amazing and alarming at first; they feel that a vow of temporary silence is in order!

Also, I like to read crisp and pure writing as a good reminder. Orhan Pamuk's "My Father's Suitcase" or Edith Wharton's "Ethan Frome," for example. And I'm swept away by the beauty of language with a dose of Pablo Neruda's poetry: try his "Ode to the Dictionary" and "Verb." And Mary Oliver never lets me down with her simple, graceful language: spend some time with her "Wild Geese" and "Acid."

What did you say? Did you mean it?

Marietta McCarty is the author of Little Big Minds: Sharing Philosophy With Kids and How Philosophy Can Save Your Life: 10 Ideas That Matter Most.

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