Experience teaches that words alone do not always reflect a speaker’s motivation for using them. In both the public sphere and interpersonal contexts, words are often used to camouflage the actual thoughts, feelings, or dispositions of speakers and writers. Fortunately, we are innately capable of detecting clues about the authenticity or sincerity of words because our language skills are as much about perceptive listening and discernment as they are about a competent use and understanding of words.
At the present time, it is hard to underestimate the importance of keeping our language skills as well-honed as possible. Because we live at a time when what we consume in the public sphere (through written or spoken words) is riddled with misleading information or outright deception, it is up to each of us, as responsible participants in public life, to pay attention not only to words, but to what we believe they actually signify. And although we can never be absolutely sure of the actual intent of a speaker or writer, we can be absolutely committed to understanding them as honestly and perceptively as possible. A fairly recent example of my own efforts in this regard came last November (Nov.7, 2020), when I listened to then President-elect Joseph Biden’s victory recognition speech.
At a time when fragmented relationships wreak havoc at all levels of societal life, it was heartening to hear a political leader begin a victory speech by saying that he “seeks not to divide, but to unify” and to have a sense that the words were sincere! For me, there were many clues in this speech that indicated the speaker was genuinely committed to working towards healing the divisiveness—the brokenness—of contemporary American life. For instance: I believe that personal authenticity (genuineness) is a matter of “being someone” rather than simply “doing something.” So, I was glad to hear President-elect Biden describe his wife as an educator for whom “teaching isn’t just what she does—it’s who she is.” Statements like this suggest that the speaker understands that the power of words and actions come, not from the mere act of saying or doing something, but from a real-life correspondence between them and who someone is as a person.
Surely, personal integrity as well as life-enhancing relationships are grounded in real-life authenticity. And how can anything be authentic (actual / true) without embracing the inherent mutuality of everyone and everything. President-elect Biden reinforced this message of inclusivity in his speech by leaving no doubt that he was addressing all Americans, regardless of their political affiliation, ideology, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, demographic circumstances, or anything else. In keeping with the wisdom of all our major religious/spiritual traditions, he reminded us that “we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy.” Moreover, he spoke in what appeared to me to be a measured though obviously excited manner, focusing as much on feelings as on thoughts and ideas, all of which left me with a sense of someone who is both capable and trustworthy—someone with a sense of the wholeness of life. And if ever there was a time for a political leader with a sensitivity to the wholeness of life, and the empathic intelligence it implies, it is now.
“We lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
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Living in the middle of things involves a willingness