I am not a verbal person. I am a writer. I was born with a birth defect to my ears. Once discovered, when I was 2 or 3, doctors were able to correct most of my hearing with a series of operations over a number of years. Operations eventually fixed most of the hearing problem… but it took 7-8 years of speech therapy to teach my tongue to pronounce words in a way that others could understand.
To this day, I need to “practice” words and names I have never tried to say before. I prefer to see things written and to write. And I avoid saying certain words altogether. I have one vocabulary I use for speaking and another for writing.
In the West of my youth, my slow speaking pace and peculiar verbal style that occasionally includes a mild stutter, frequent “re-starts,” and a number of hesitation-pauses did not seem particularly pronounced. Westerners have been known to be slow talkers.
But when I headed to college in the Midwest and seminary in Chicago, it was noticed. One professor even told me that at first the faculty had thought that I must have had a substance abuse problem at one time. He said they thought that was the case until they started reading what I wrote.
I communicate one way in writing and one way in speaking. They are remarkably different. And hence, I often feel like the Apostle Paul, “His letters are weighty and strong, but… his speech of no account.”
Ours is a verbal world. Politicians are measured quite often not by what do as much as what they say. Verbal awkwardness is often construed to be a sign of intellectual deficiency. George Bush, the younger, was often proclaimed by his critics to be an “idiot” because of his well known habit of mangling American English. That he had graduated from an Ivy league school and had an MBA from Harvard and had risen to become the most powerful man in the world, was totally dismissed. Because George Bush would sound occasionally like someone not fully acquainted with the English language, many came to believe that he must be a fool.
To quote the Scarecrow in Wizard of Oz, it is has long been my observation that, “some people without brains do an awful lot of talking don’t they?” In fact, the more eloquent and polished a speaker seems, the less likely I am to trust the words that they are saying: used car salesmen, talk radio hosts, lobbyists, politicians….
Truth and eloquence are not the same thing. In fact, quite often truth is an ugly and confusing thing. Politicians talk-radio hosts, NRA mouth-pieces, abortion-rights advocates, and Fox News anchors make their living “prettying-up” things… using language to obfuscate and confuse. Those who get their news only from radio and television soundbites are quickly led astray. Images and eloquence rule the day.
But when we teach children to read literature, poetry and fiction and drama, we teach them the truth about Truth (with a capital “T”). Truth can sometimes be messy and ugly and difficult and demanding. But in the end, Truth alone matters… not power or advantage or money or winning or looking good. Literature alone teaches us that.