As I contemplate the state of our world from the rhetoric of shut-downs to stand your ground, from the self-righteousness of political discourse to the dogma of ecclesiastic pronouncements, and from the justifications for political inequality to the explanations for ecological disregard, I wonder what has happen to all of our little words?
What has happen to our little words of gratitude? These are words like “thank you,” or “I appreciate that,” or “that is kind of you.” Have you ever noticed how in our world today people rush through it without stopping to say thank you? We have become a taken-for-granted people in a taken-for-granted world. We act as if we are entitled to certain things because of who we are or simply because we are. But here is the thing, that which we take for granted we tend to squander, to abuse, and to easily discard—like our natural and human resources. We take for granted our relationships to the earth as well as to one another. We take for granted our life on this planet and our life in community. It is time that we recover our little words. We must learn once again to speak little words of gratitude, for such little words go a long way in changing our world and to transforming a people from being wasteful, excessive and warring to being conserving, non-indulging, and peaceable.
What has happen to our little words of respect, words like sir or ma’m, Mr. or Ms.? You rarely if ever hear those words any more, let alone words like please. Instead you hear words like, “those people,” or “that woman,” or “that man,” as well as commands like, “do this”, or “do that,” or “just do your job.” Words of respect have become lost to us. Yet, words of respect are words that signal to those with whom we interact that they are not our property, they are not a commodity, they are not objects to be tossed about, or sheer animals that can be bossed around, used and discarded. Rather they signal to people they are human beings to be treated with the sacred dignity that is theirs. It is not about a person’s office, title or status, it is about a person’s humanity. Little words of respect go a long way in forging a world that honors, esteems and highly regards the sacredness of every single individual that walks on the face of the earth.
Where have those little words of responsibility gone to? They are simple little words like “I was wrong,” or “I made a mistake.” In our world today we hear words of excuses like “everybody does it,” or “it is no big deal” or “who does it hurt, really?” or “they are to blame, not me.” The way to a more moral world is not where everyone is perfect, where no one makes mistakes or where no one does something wrong. There are no mistake-free, perfect people in the world—at least as far as I know. The way to a more moral world is where imperfect people are willing to speak words of responsibility, like “I was wrong.” To say I was wrong is to be accountable for our actions and to set us on the right course of righting the wrong that was done. To be sure, you can’t make right that which you never admit was wrong in the first place.
What has happen to the little words of humility, like “help, or “I don’t know.” We live in a world of rugged individualism where hubris reigns. We have nurtured a culture where people are ridiculed for asking for help as if they are incapable, weak or shamelessly dependent. Giving and receiving help is seen as a moral failing and a shameless entitlement. Ours is a world where people are expected to pull their own weight and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Moreover, we have fostered a way of being in the world where not knowing all of the answers is seen as an intellectual deficit. To say that I don’t have the answer or to ask what another thinks is viewed as a weakness. To ask for help is not a moral failing and to admit not knowing is not a sign of a weak mind, rather both show strength of character. To ask for help indeed recognizes not only that we can not make it without another, but it recognizes the strength that comes when we trust in the strength of others. To ask for help unleashes that good, compassionate, and giving-spirit that compels us to be helpers one to another in times of need. And to be sure, it is not until we are able to ask for help ourselves that we will be able to help others. The more we think we can do everything by ourselves, the more we believe we have made it on our own and that we have “pulled ourselves up by our own wits, ingenuity and bootstraps,” then the less likely we will be to help another to make it. Knowing how to ask for help is the first step to building a just and benevolent world. Likewise, to admit that which we don’t know is the first step toward recognizing that the way other people experience and see the world is important—and indeed that who we are shapes, if not limits, how we see the world. It is only when we can admit what we don’t know and what we can’t see that we will become a truly global community.
And so why talk about little words in our world of big problems? Because little words matter. They are the words that change the quality of our living and the shape of our world. Audre Lorde reminds us that we must be the change that we want to see. If indeed we want to see a world where the earth and all that there is therein is respected as the sacred creation that it is, then we must make the little words of gratitude, respect, responsibility and humility a part of our vocabulary of living. Change does start from the bottom-up. Dehumanizing and destructive systems and structures do not come from above, they emerge from below. They are a reflection of who we are even as they act back upon us in unimaginable ways. If we are to change the web of power, we must change the web of our relationships. Simply put, a people who have a sacred regard for one another and the earth simply will not tolerate systems and structures that do otherwise.
Why is a womanist theologian talking about little words? Because I believe that it is in the little words of our living that we find God acting to make our world more reflective of the way God created it to be. This I know for sure, the big words of our world have not moved us any closer to God’s world of justice, equality and peace and so perhaps it is time for us to reclaim the little words.
Kelly Brown Douglas is Professor and Director of the Religion Program at Goucher College where she has held the Elizabeth Conolly Todd Distinguished Professorship. She was recently awarded The Goucher College Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award for outstanding faculty achievement. Kelly is a leading voice in the development of a womanist theology, Essence magazine counts Douglas “among this country’s most distinguished religious thinkers, teachers, ministers, and counselors.” She has published numerous essays and articles in national publications, and her books include The Black Christ, Sexuality and the Black Church, What’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Soul. Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant is her most recently released book (Palgrave Macmillan, Fall 2012). Kelly is also a priest in the Episcopal Church and has served as Associate Priest at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. for over 20 years.