Painting with words

by Don Hartness

The ineffectiveness of language is astounding.

Oxford estimates that the English language contains approximately a quarter of a million words.  If you count all the slang words exchanged in everyday speech, there could easily be three times that number.  Since words are the building blocks a writer uses to convey a thought, a concept, an ideal, or an emotion, you would think, with these words at his/her disposal, that a writer could effectively construct anything their heart desires.

Sadly, this is not the case.

For how does a writer express the deeper aspects of the human experience? For example, how does a writer express the concept of faith?  Whole volumes are devoted to expressing the concept of faith: what it is, what it is not (for faith is more than mere belief), how one acquires it, and how one maintains it.  In spite of the volume of time and energy devoted to this endeavor, many still cannot comprehend this concept of faith.

Or what about hope?  The apostle Paul stated that hope is “the belief in things yet unseen.”  Although this may adequately describe the state of mind for a person filled with hope, the experience, and its effects on a human soul, are quite a different matter.  Why do people continue to cling to hope when their experience suggests that such a concept is nothing more than a fool’s dream?

And then there’s the hardest one: how does a writer express love?

Any word used to describe love in all of its various aspects is, in itself, an incomplete description.  “Love is a feeling”, leaves out the devotional aspect of love.  “Love is a verb” fails to cover the power behind it.  No word adequately captures the breadth and width of love. Love is described as a state of mind, a state of heart, an emotion, and as a feeling.  It’s also been counterfeited by infatuation, desire, lust, jealousy, and possession.

The inadequacy of words is not the only challenge for a writer: the over-usage also poses a problem. In an age where information is dispensed in a rate and manner incomprehensible to generations past, and where everybody, no matter how idiotic, has a world-wide audience, is it any wonder that words have lost their impact and meaning. Add to this the challenge presented by the deliberate misuse of the word for selfish, manipulative, or  coercive means.

Is it any wonder the word has lost its meaning? How often has someone told you “I love you”, just to get something from you? None of us are immune; if we are being honest with ourselves, we’ll admit the time we did this to someone else, whether we were aware of it or not. Regardless of intent, the effect is always the same.  Once we discover that these words are the seductive part of a poison intent on making the heart contract in profound despair, we are apt to disbelieve the words if we ever hear them again.  The interpersonal effect is analogous to the body’s reaction to poisoned food: we retreat from those that utter them.

The problem is not unique to writers. Any artist that applies his or her talents to create an image or impression within the mind of the beholder must face this challenge.  An artist must first learn to use their tools in such a way as to appeal to at least one person, before they can appeal to many.  True mastery, however, lies in illustrating the deepest aspects of human existence to the widest possible audience.

What if I was a painter?

Anybody can paint a picture, no matter how crude.  Yet, to produce a work of art that reaches the widest possible audience takes a special skill.  The painter has to dig deeper than the normal images we see on the surface. Now, I’m not a painter but, if I had the skill, I know what I would paint to portray love.  I would paint a wedding dance, with both participants gazing into each other’s eyes.  I would paint someone dying, with their spouse holding their hand, comforting them in the midst of choking down the fear and tears.  I would paint a mother holding a newborn child, capturing the look of peace on the mother’s face after so much pain.  I would paint a father holding the hand of a terrified child, paying careful attention to the father’s all-knowing face.

What if I was a musician? I would create a light-hearted melody, expressing the lofty heights the soul obtains while in the throes of love.  It would soothe the soul, informing the listener that better times and hopes lie ahead.  It would also stir the heart of even the most stone-hearted listener, conveying that, in spite of all the listener might believe to the contrary, love exists.  For those acquainted with love in all of its splendor, tears would form, as the majestic nature of love is summoned and swirled within the listener.

What if I were a sculptor? I wouldn’t know where to begin with this one.  Ultimately, I would hope to build something that shows the pure beauty of creation, and the love that the Creator has for creation, for I imagine that the pleasure of sculpting is the act of creation.  For who can look upon a sculpture of exquisite quality, and not realize that all of creation is, indeed, a beautiful expression of love by the One who created us?

What if I were an engineer? You may not have thought of this one, but we are all engineers when we craft something. When an engineer pours their love into his or her work, that work reflects it.  A home that shields from the elements while providing comfort to its occupants, even if those occupants cannot pay top dollar.  A bridge that exceeds specifications while aesthetically pleasing.  In short, anybody that creates something with love as the primary motivation is only imitating the One who created all of it first.

But I am none of these things. I am a writer. My art is a double-edged sword: I can capture nothing in its inherent purity, but I can represent almost anything with my pen.  In the end, I can never capture the pure meaning of love, but I can portray the hint of its existence.

Did you get a glimpse?