Words Limited

Words are not enough to encompass life. To experience the universe only through words is to miss life itself, and fail to enter the kingdom of Heaven

I was waiting for a flight at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport last weekend, and doing what I often do at airports…watching people. Thousands walked by, from flight crews with their impressive leather jackets and epaulets, to children with their troll pillows and Disney backpacks. Many adults were stooped, with shoulders rotated in and necks craned forward looking at their cell phones, which they typically held in their left hands. Single women cruised with short steps and a hippy gait, especially those in high heels, and single men sported their shouldery saunter. Mothers pushed strollers and fathers carried car seats and other luggage through crowded passageways.

One couple rushed past as if they were late for a flight. The mother pushed a stroller carrying a girl who looked about two, and the father held a crying boy who looked about four. The boy lay wiggling across his father’s arms, with head to the dad’s right and feet to his left, his back arched as if he was trying to escape.  The crying grew louder, but the father did not register annoyance or embarrassment in his face.

A large poster hung on the wall of the corridor. The words “Save the Animals” sprawled across the top of the poster, and details about how to donate to the group covered the bottom. In between were more than a dozen photographs of adorable cats and dogs, with friendly eyes pleading with passersby to rescue them. I had watched hundreds of people pass the poster without a twitch suggesting that it had even registered in their consciousness.

Seeking to quiet him, the mother told her son to “look at the animals.” He did. The little boy gazed at the dogs and cats, his countenance brightened, and for a moment he stopped crying. The father never slowed his step and in seconds they were past the pictures. The boy whimpered a little, but didn’t cry again. Soon the family was out of sight.

When I had passed the poster for the first time, my mind registered “Save the Animals” and I noted the presence of dog and cat pictures, but I did not see the dogs and cats in the photos. Performing a mini-experiment, I walked past several other posters and noticed a trend – my mind instantly grasped the message conveyed by the words but took longer to absorb the message carried in the pictures. Like me, most people in airports hurry by the posters and so words are all that stick in our consciousness.

I suspect that the boy was too young to read, and so what he saw was vastly different. There were unintelligible symbols that probably didn’t look very interesting (the words) above and below pictures of fun and friendly animals. One cat had narrow, diamond-shaped pupils while another’s were round and friendly. One dog wore a goofy grin and another a sly smile. Their fur was thick and plush, boasting dozens of shades of brown, black, and grey. Their eyes bubbled over in frolic.

It occurred to me that we adults capture no more than a snapshot of our surroundings, often in the form of words, as we rush from person to person, place to place, and pursuit to pursuit. Unable to get meaning from words, children seek meaning through pictures, sounds, tastes, smells, and sensations. They take longer experiencing life through their senses, and in our haste we pull them away. In this, do we unintentionally deny them the opportunity to find meaning and knowledge in their surroundings? Do we train them to discover meaning and knowledge in books, or more likely movies and television, rather than in life? Do we yank them away from what is real, and give them only a pale substitute in return, the same substitute to which we have limited ourselves?

I love to read, as do my children, and I also love to write. Reading is a great joy – everyone should do it. But words, a construct of man, are information-poor, emotion-poor, and action-poor, compared to Creation, a construct of God. The little boy found an information-, emotion-, and action-rich environment on that poster, the pictures. At first, I found an information-, emotion-, and action-poor environment – the words “Save the Animals.” I suspect that his parents were just like me, and I suspect that most literate adults are just like us.

Jesus said, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3).” Perhaps this is part of what He meant.

Leave a Reply