Recently I read Night by Elie Wiesel, the chilling true story of Wiesel and his family being taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp, and then to Buchenwald. This event in our history is truly one that, in the words of Wiesel, “sprang from the darkest zone of man.”
Every time I read or hear an account of one of these survivors, I am left with a hollow feeling inside. I mourn that human beings were treated in a way that shattered their understanding of God, their personhood, their relationships, and even their words.
Wiesel describes in his Preface the responsibility he felt to give testimony to his experience, but that he found it difficult to put it into words. This makes sense. After all, how do you describe such heinous acts? But, that’s not the extent of what Wiesel meant. He writes of his struggle to record his story:
Painfully aware of my limitations, I watched helplessly as language became an obstacle. It became clear that it would be necessary to invent a new language. But how was one to rehabilitate and transform words betrayed and perverted by the enemy? Hunger – thirst – fear – transport – selection – fire – chimney: these words all have intrinsic meaning, but in those times, they meant something else. . . . All the dictionary had to offer seemed meager, pale, lifeless. Was there a way to describe the last journey in sealed cattle cars, the last voyage toward the unknown? Or the discovery of a demented and glacial universe where to be inhuman was human, where disciplined, educated men in uniform came to kill, and innocent children and weary old men came to die?
Language is supposed to free us to express our thoughts and feelings, our experiences. I have written on this blog about how the act of writing about pieces of my personal story has brought a deeper awareness and understanding of those experiences, and even provides comfort as I begin to see how things fit together. For me, even in the midst of pain and struggle, language has been my ally.
But for Wiesel, language was a betrayer. His experience called into question every foundation he thought he stood on. If fact, “called into question” is too benign. His experience deconstructed everything he believed to be true – even the intrinsic meaning of everyday words. I can’t imagine.
As writers, we choose our words carefully. I’ve been know to agonize over how to write something until I find just the right words to express what I intend to communicate. If I stop to notice, I know that my word choice is certainly influenced by more than just the intrinsic meaning; the words I choose – and don’t choose – are also influenced by my experience. But during the writing process, I typically don’t recognize this automatic sifting of language through the filter of my experience. But, it happens. It happens to me. It happens to you. But it didn’t happen for Wiesel.
And yet . . .
Wiesel fought to find the words to tell his story, without which, he says, “my life as a writer – or my life, period – would not have become what it is: that of a witness who believes he has a moral obligation to try to prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human memory.”
Writing is always courageous. But, what Wiesel did was life-changing . . . for him, and for us.
What can we, as fellow writers, learn from Wiesel’s experience with language?
- A richer awareness of the language we use, and why we use it. The words and topics we choose tell us about ourselves. I believe that knowing more about ourselves produces more authentic, and potentially life-changing (certainly for us, and often for our readers), writing. And, really, isn’t change – of mind, of heart, of behavior – a primary desire of most writers?
- Greater sensitivity to how our words might be perceived. How true it is that one’s interpretation of the words we write is intertwined with both intrinsic meaning and his or her experience. Though we cannot control how others interpret our words, we are wise to clearly define particular words or topics that might invoke interpretation contrary to our intended meaning. Additionally, by seriously considering our readers’ various experiences and viewpoints, we can anticipate how they might perceive our words and work to address those viewpoints in light of our own.
- The assurance that language is ultimately our ally. Though it can betray us, language is still one of the greatest gifts given to human beings. Like us, language is adaptable. And, like Wiesel, we can choose to wrestle with language in order to find the right words to express our thoughts, opinions, and creativity. In this digital age that seems to promote reactive, and sometimes thoughtless, speech, let’s re-commit to using this gift of language wisely. Let’s use it to promote truth, understanding, and honesty. Let’s commit to using words that encourage and edify, and that show respect for those who differ from us. Let’s treat language like the unique gift that it is.