April 9, 2008

I Believe in Eating My Vegetables

2008 1510 page13 capt’s Saturday night and I’m making a bowl of popcorn. In the background I can hear the patter of TV commercials. Any minute now my program will be coming on. My evening’s entertainment: the presidential debates.
I’ve been obsessively following the election. And while watching the debates might not rank high as Saturday-night fun, my political curiosity is not singular. The world seems unusually fascinated by this year’s United States presidential election.
The choices are particularly attractive, even historic. And yet, at the end of the day, the candidates are still running for public office; and with politics come the clichés of flag-waving, handshaking, and baby kissing.* Perhaps the most egregious is empty language.
The election process is like a long blind date. We want to get to know the candidate and see whether there is a promising future ahead. The candidate, on the other hand, wants to survive the date without making any major missteps.
2008 1510 page13Theirs is a difficult task. Pundits (and competitors) parse and analyze each of their words. Any careless comment, any apparent contradiction in message, could end a campaign. And so our candidates have to speak with caution, preferring to stick with generalities no one can disagree with. They campaign on eating your veggies and having strong family values. They speak a lot without saying much.
In his 1946 essay “Politics of the English Language,” George Orwell writes fiercely about how “political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Everyone who has listened to a politician—including, I imagine, other politicians—can concur. But what about those of us who are not politicians? Are we guilty of similar crimes against language? Do we obscure the raw truth behind catchphrases? Do we speak in generalities rather than specifics?
Each year, I assign Orwell’s essay to my students. It is a dense, hectoring piece, and my students return to class appalled and bruised. “But he hates everything,” one gentleman protested.
“What do you disagree with?” I ask. Mostly, it is the tone they find off-putting. But they are also uncomfortable with what Orwell is insisting on: stripping paragraphs of phrases, clichés, and truisms, then building each thought one word at a time. If one writes the way Orwell insists upon, there is no hiding.
I reread Orwell’s essay each time I assign it. When I read it, I think not only about politics and language, but also about religion and language. Like any organization, Christianity has its own comfortable vocabulary. We use abstract words such as righteousness and faith. They are necessary words—one cannot always speak in concrete phrases—but we say them so much and we hear them so much that they skip right past our ears. What does it mean to have faith? How is having faith different for you than it is for someone else? What does it look like? Sound like? Where does it take you, and where does it leave you?
Recently, I have been reading Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott, one of the rawest discussions of faith I have ever encountered. Anne Lamott is no saint, nor does she pretend to be one. She is, however, authentic. Since I’m not a saint either, I connected with the prosaic everydayness of being human and seeking the divine.
In some ways, Lamott is my spiritual opposite. I’m more like Martha in the Bible. I’m the bossy, pragmatic doer in the kitchen, the one who has not made the better choice. Anne, however, is like Mary. Her stories might disturb some Review readers, but there is no doubt that she chooses always to sit at Jesus’ feet.
A year ago I attended an Anne Lamott reading. When I moseyed into the bookstore all the seats were taken, as was the standing room. I ended up sitting on the floor between bookshelves, listening. Only later did I glimpse the author.
People are hungry for an honest examination of life, faith, and spirituality. As a writer, I need to remember this. I need to remember to write bravely. And as Orwell would insist, I need to think beyond the clichés of ideas.
*Darren Garnick created a fascinating slide-show essay titled “The Baby Primary: Can I Get My 5-Month-Old Daughter Photographed With Every Presidential Candidate?” It can be found at www.slate.com/id/2181495/.
Sari Fordham is an assistant professor at La Sierra University in Riverside, California. She teaches in the Department of English and Communication.