Tuesday, March 30, 2010


"Human utterance is an essence which aspireth to exert its influence and needeth moderation. As to its influence, this is conditional upon refinement which in turn is dependent upon hearts which are detached and pure. As to its moderation, this hath to be combined with tact and wisdom as prescribed in the Holy Scriptures and Tablets."

This quote has long intrigued me. It seems to be both a set of instructions and a caution about how to use the power of speech. But the more I look at it, the more I wonder how much of it I really understand. Oh, I don't mean on a deeper and more significant level, but just on the simple level of the language itself.

What does Baha'u'llah mean by calling "human utterance... an essence"? The word "essence" comes from the root word "esse", or "to be". It means that it exists, in and of itself.

"Human utterance" exists? It has an existence? And this existence, of which Baha'u'llah is speaking, seems to have a will of its own. It has an aspiration. It aspires "to exert its influence".

I may be off base, but I often think of words, in terms of speech, as fairly powerless, a mere breath of air. And yet as a writer I do know better.

"Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me"? Not true. How often have we been hurt by words, either carelessly tossed off, or honed to a sharp and precise weapon? It is said that the tongue is the only edged weapon that becomes sharper with use. To dismiss the pain that people feel from the words of others does those friends a disservice, for the pain they feel is real and should be acknowledged, not dismissed out of hand.

Here, Baha'u'llah seems to allude to something similar. Words, through the power of utterance, exist. They want to have an influence, and they need moderation. Quite the caution, that.

But wait a moment. They want to have an influence? Is that what it means when Baha'u'llah says that they "aspireth to exert... influence"? Aspire is an interesting word, for it actually has two very different meanings: to desire, and to breathe. Do words breathe? Obviously they are of the breath, but I don't think they have lungs. I am forced by my own limited understanding of the word to conclude that they have, somehow, a desire.

It is very interesting to remember that aspire and spirit both have that same root: aspirare, to breathe upon or the breath of life. Is there a clue within these meanings as to what Baha'u'llah is referring to? I'm not sure.

Aside from this, Baha'u'llah also seems to be saying that the effectiveness of an utterance's influence is based upon a keen phrasing, manners, elegence and subtle reasoning, for this is the definition of "refinement" (I just love the dictionary, in case you can't tell). Without these various qualities, the speech would be ineffective, for who would want to listen to it?

Imagine, if you will, someone wanted to try to convince others of something, or share some vital piece of information: wouldn't people be more willing to listen to them if they spoke well? Wouldn't others be more easily convinced if they were subtle in their reasoning instead of blunt and crude in their speech? Obviously with these various qualities, they would be more likely to be effective in achieving their objective.

This refinement is not just enough by itself, for you can have all the qualities listed above, and yet still not be trusted by your listeners if you have an ulterior motive. No, the best way to be effective in your work, through your speech, is to be detached from the ideas you espouse and at the same time pure in your motive.

How often have we been "befriended" by people, but later found that they only wanted us to join their "team"? I remember way too often being warmly welcomed into a group, usually a religious group, only to be spurned because I had no intention of wearing their team-jacket, as a friend of mine once put it. After that, I was far less likely to give any credence to what they said, no matter how wise it was. They had lost my trust.

Now I try to be extra cautious with this, myself. I pray that I am never that barrier between someone else and their Creator. That would be the worst possible thing I could imagine.

There is still one last part of this quote, though: moderation.

Moderation, or the avoidance of extremes or excesses, is very important. I can think of countless times where my enthusiasm for something got in the way of my being effective in conveying an idea. When we are told to show moderation in all things, He truly means "all things".

It is similar to that quote from Gleanings, in which Baha'u'llah tells us that we must "cleanse (our) heart that no remnant of either love or hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline (us) to error, or that hate repel (us) away from the truth".

You see, I am of the belief that if we are overly enthusiastic in our speech, that may actually turn some people off, for they may feel we are blinded. This is not the same as speaking with conviction, for we should be convinced of what we are saying, nor is it the same as being radiant when we talk. But speech requires moderation to be effective.

Beyond that, our speech also has to have tact and wisdom, for without tact we will offend our listeners, and without wisdom, well, why are we speaking?

"The essence of wisdom", Baha'u'llah says, "is the fear of God, the dread of His scourge and punishment, and the apprehension of His justice and decree."

When we speak with this kind of wisdom, and an awareness of our own weakness and utter reliance upon God, along with a grave concern that we not give offense lest we suffer from the knowledge of having turned someone away from their Creator, then we know that we are doing the best we can.

When our speech is guided by this principle of wisdom, and a concern about the listener, when really take to heart that twice-stated warning from 'Abdu'l-Baha, "Beware! Beware! Lest thou offend any heart", then we have the greatest of all chances in our speech having the desired effect upon our listeners.

And I know that if I study this quote some more, I'll actually be able to begin to get a glimmer of the depth of wisdom contained within it. Call me "silly", or call me "crazy", but I believe that the more we study even a single line from the Writings, the more we can begin to appreciate a portion of what has been given to us.

In fact, call me whatever you want, for sticks and stones can break my bones... Oh, uhm, never mind.

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