Back in that blur called The Sixties (roughly 1966-1973), I lived off and on in various states of the Union and mind, in collectives, a trailer, and apartments with a friend named Don, who preferred in those days to be called Donnie. One amazing summer we lived in a little cottage in the hippy oasis of Venice, California, a few blocks
from the beach. We paid virtually nothing to live there, where real estate now is measured with six zeros.
We mostly lived off ten cent yogurt from the nearby Safeway, hung out with surf bums, went tripping to the laundromat, read Richard Brautigan and Alan Watts, dug free concerts, and studiously pursued expanding our spiritual consciousness, in part by taking regular lessons from a local Hawaiian holy man known as the Big Kahuna. Don also got involved with another L.A. sect who believed in the I AM. He bought all their literature and tried to convince me that he could change anything with his mind, including the color of his eyes. For a while, he ate only brown rice he claimed to cook through sheer will. It saved on the gas bill, too.
Once on the way to a Richie Havens concert, he threw his eyeglasses out of the car window to prove he no longer needed them.
In Donnie’s quest for his true mind, he eventually lost it in classic Syd Barrett or Roky Erickson fashion. I visited him a few months ago in the group home where he has lived since about 1980. He greeted me as though we had just seen each other last week, although decades had passed. He was eager to show me his coin collection. His hair was grayer, but he was basically the same.
I always thought it was the religion that Don couldn’t handle, not the drugs. And I learned some things from his passion. He would refuse to sing (or listen to) popular songs with lyrics he didn’t like. Instead, he rewrote the songs so as not to express sentiments of hate, fear, or evil.
If words have consequences, thinking in words also must inform and modify the way we exist. We are what we eat, but we also are what we think. William Burroughs famously perceived language as a virus that replicates itself in the stupid human hosts. The fact that we are forbidden to speak aloud the television show title “$#!+ My Dad Says” is revealing as to the kind of control words can command over the
In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, he instructs the new believers to “Pray without ceasing.” Perhaps some people feel unhappy that they can’t be on their knees 24/7, but the simpler understanding would be that we ought remain conscious and diligent of our own thoughts, hearing out and then judging that miasma of verbiage and impressions that snap amid the gray matter. It’s all prayer, for better or worse.
I got into the habit of editing my thoughts as I go. One has to be a little bit schizophrenic to do this. Otherwise, it could drive you crazy.
I catch words going down one familiar and unproductive alley and have to shift into reverse. Sometimes I let the worst, most dangerous, or most unthinkable language have its way with my brain, just to assess quietly how it comes out, how valid or ridiculous. If the latter, I press “delete.”
And then there are the literal consequences of language (a phrase that certainly must be some kind of redundancy). The common phrase, “I’m afraid that…” has consequences. Glenn Beck uses it frequently, with his trembling announcements of “I’m afraid for my country.” Cue tears.
Apart from insinuating fear (and anger and hatred and violence) into his followers, Beck’s repetition of this probably intensifies his unfounded (and decidedly wacky) terror of Obama.
Same thing with “I’m sick and tired of…” or “It makes me sick.” I’m convinced that is exactly what happens when you indulge yourself with such stock phrases. I can’t prove it. I just believe it and I avoid such thoughts.
Working with high school freshmen some years back, I once told a co-worker that I was “too old for this $#!+.” Alarmed, she quickly replied, “Don’t say that because then it…” Her voice trailed off, afraid such a literal pronouncement would cause an instant eruption of crows’ feet.
This is unscientific and possibly magical thinking of some sort. Although I avoid thinking negatively, it is also possible that saying things about other people has a kind of reverse effect. All name-calling, for example, strikes me as little more than spitting into the wind. A big glob of it lands right back on your cheek.
I sparingly use the words “hate” and “love” and “should” and many more I can’t conjure up right now. Is attributing too much impact to language, both inside and outside our heads, all nonsense? Not if you consider that the F-word is considered a “bomb” in polite culture, exploding the tender thoughts of others in the vicinity. And I’m completely convinced that anti-gay rhetoric spoken in many a church creates a butterfly effect culminating in bashings and suicides far from the offending pulpit or
intentions of the perhaps well-meaning moralist.
Do I dare to eat a “happy” meal? Can I lose this afflictive tendency to give words power by immersing myself in Thomas Pynchon and Gertrude Stein novels? Was Led Zeppelin on to something when they sang that “if the stores are all closed with a word she can get what she came for”? Can the power of positive thinking really end world hunger and eplenish the depleted oil reserves?
Let me think about it.