Emotions, Language, and the Experience of Homesickness
In her book Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home, Jen Pollock Michel reflects on the nature of home in a transient age. In this short excerpt, Michel focuses on the language associated with the experience of homesickness. In an interview with the New York Times, Tiffany Watt Smith, author of The Book of Human Emotions, described her research on the role that language plays in our emotional lives. As Smith argues, words not only describe how we feel; they distinctly shape how we understand our feelings. In other words, a diminished vocabulary limits not just emotional self-expression but emotional self-perception.
As complex emotional beings, we need nomenclature for fear and self-doubt, longing and desire. In short, we must be taught to explain ourselves to ourselves as well as to others. “One of the emotions I became really interested in when researching the book was homesickness,” Smith described in the interview. In the mid to late eighteenth century, homesickness was counted a credible source of physical ailment and even considered a possible cause of death.
According to medical records, homesick patients experienced the expected symptoms of depression and fatigue, but they also suffered surprising physical ones, such as sores, pustules, and fevers. In severe cases, sufferers refused to eat, growing so weak as to eventually die. Their doctors labeled their deaths severe cases of nostalgia—from nostos, “homecoming,” and algia, “pain.” (The last mention of “nostalgia” on a death certificate was in 1918.)
A Few Minutes or an Hour?
Tallulah Bankhead (1903-1968) was a flamboyant actress, whom one critic called “more an act than an actress.” She was also known for her extreme talkativeness. One day after an interview, the interviewer said, “I’ve just spent an hour talking to Tallulah for a few minutes.”
Stuart Strachan Jr., Source Material from Clifton Fadiman, Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes.
The Greatest Imaginable Number of Readings
Jesus Christ was prone to making comments which seem to support an almost infinite variety of exegesis. A remark like ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars and ‘unto God the things that are Gods’ could almost have been produced by computer scientists working at the cutting edge of linguistic theory to formulate the single human sentence responsible to the greatest imaginable number of readings.
Healing with Words
Walker Percy wrote six novels in which he made us insiders to the spiritual disease of alienation that he found pervasive in American culture. His name for the condition is “lost in the cosmos.” We don’t know who we are or where we are. We don’t know where we came from or where we are going. Percy began his vocational life as a physician, intending to use medicines and surgeries to heal sick and damaged bodies.
He had hardly gotten started before he changed jobs. Sometimes we have to change jobs in order to maintain our vocation. Percy did. He became a writer so he could tend to the healing of souls, using nouns and verbs to cure what ails us. It is not insignificant that he was also a Christian. His diagnosis of the spiritual “lostness” of his American brothers and sisters was intended to wake us up to our desperate condition and set up a few signposts for finding our way home.
“He Was Against It”
President Calvin Coolidge returned home from attending church early one Sunday afternoon. His wife had been unable to attend, but she was interested in what the minister spoke on in the service. Coolidge responded, “Sin.” She pressed him for a few words of explanation. And being a man of a few words with his wife, he responded, “Well, I think he was against it.”
How To Keep Your Kids From Talking All the Time (Unfortunately, Through Lying)
My friend Joi told me that when she was growing up, her parents invented a ploy to keep her from talking all of the time. They told her that people are allowed only so many words in one lifetime, and when they use up those words, they die. So, Joi developed a habit of using words sparingly. She told me she would often go an entire day without speaking a word, and at the end of the day she would think to herself, “I just added one whole extra day to my life!”
Leaving the Right Words Behind
I am not a mountain climber, but a few years ago I had the idea that I might want to climb seriously, so I started to read and to train. I’ve climbed a few glacier-covered mountains in the northwestern United States with professionals. One of the things that you learn from professional climbers is the discipline of packing well.
Tools are helpful when you climb. Your sleeping bag provides warmth, your lantern provides light, and your gloves provide protection. Lose your footing and your ax can save your life. Every tool has a purpose, and almost any tool can be helpful. Every tool also has weight. Standing at sea level, an ax in your hand feels like a feather.
At twelve thousand feet, hours from the summit, an extra pound in your pack feels like an anvil. In the same way, words have value. The right words can right your balance. The right words can light your way. But words also have weight. In our life and work, we have to carry what is essential, and leave much of the rest behind.
“A Less Obvious Solution”
In The Essential Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, the cartoon character Calvin says to his tiger friend, Hobbes, “I feel bad that I called Susie names and hurt her feelings. I’m sorry I did it.”
“Maybe you should apologize to her,” Hobbes suggests. Calvin ponders this for a moment and replies, “I keep hoping there’s a less obvious solution.”
Norm Langston in Fresh Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching
Norman MacLean’s Father on Creation
In A River Runs Through It, Norman MacLean’s Father, a Presbyterian Minister, is sitting on the bank of the river, reading the Gospel of John while his sons are fishing. When Norman comes over to where he is sitting, the father pensively remarks: “In the part I was reading, it says the Word was in the beginning…I used to think water was first, but if you listen carefully you will hear that the words are underneath the water.”
Speaking And Acting
We humans may say, “Let there be light in this room,” but then we have to flick a switch or light a candle. Our words need deeds to back them up and can fail to achieve their purposes. God’s words, however, cannot fail their purposes because, for God, speaking and acting are the same thing. The God of the Bible is a God who “by his very nature, acts through speaking.
What Did the Turkey Say?
A Christian lady wanted a parrot that could talk. She looked in several shops before finding one. The owner told her, however, that the parrot had been previously owned by a bartender and though he could say anything, he also on occasion used profanity. She told him she would buy him anyway and teach him to say good things. Everything went well for about a month.
He learned to say ‘Praise the Lord’ and a number of other Christian words and phrases. One day she forgot to feed him and when she came into the house she heard him cursing. She grabbed him up and said, ‘I told you not to talk that way. I’ll teach you never to do it again.’
So she put him in the deep freeze and shut the door. A few minutes later she took him out and asked, ‘Have you learned your lesson?’ The bird shivered and replied, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ She asked, ‘Are you going to talk that way anymore?’ The parrot replied, ‘No, ma am.’ About seven months went by and not a bit of bad language. Apparently the bird was cured of his rascally habits.
Then one day she forgot to feed him, water him, or change his cage. When she returned home that day he was carrying on worse than ever. She grabbed him and put him back in the freezer but forgot him for some time. He was almost frozen to death when she thought of him.
She put him in his cage to thaw out. Finally he began to move and talk a little and she asked him again, ‘Did you learn your lesson?’ ‘Yes, ma’am,’ he retorted. Then he sat there quietly for a few more minutes shivering and said, ‘Can I ask you a question?’ She answered, ‘Yes.’ The parrot said, ‘I thought I knew all the bad words there were, but just what did that turkey in there say?’
Words of a Father
How many of you have ever been told that women talk more than men? How many of you have heard this statistic, on average women use 20,000 words a day to men’s 7,000? I know I’ve heard this quote in sermons before. Well guess what, it’s not true…women do speak more than man, but only by a very small amount. Men, or to be more accurate, fathers are often known for certain words that come out of their mouth, I found this list from another pastor:
“Ask your mother.”
”Don’t worry; it’s only blood.”
”Do I look like I’m made of money?”
“I’m not sleeping; I was watching that show.”
”I’m not just talking to hear my voice.”
”A little dirt never hurt anyone; just wipe it off.”
”We’re not lost!”
”No, we’re not there yet.”
”Don’t make me stop this car!”
The Father of Jesus, Joseph, is a man of few words, at least, what we know of. The truth is, we don’t have one single recorded word from Joseph in all of scripture.
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Words of a Feather
A young woman confessed to an older man that she had a problem saying too much about people. He told her to go buy a bird and pluck out its feathers one by one as penance for her sin. When she returned and told the man that she had followed his instructions, he said, “Now go back and pick up all the feathers.” “I can’t do that,” said the girl.
“The wind has blown them in all directions.” “That is true,” said the wise man. “Neither can you recall the words that you have spoken.” Need an additional picture of how impossible it is to take back something once you’ve said it? Squeeze a tube of toothpaste and then try to put the toothpaste back in. It’s nearly impossible to do. And it’s the same with our negative words once they’ve found their way out of our mouths.
Words of Life, Words of Death
The book of Proverbs is, in ways, a treatise on talk. I would summarize it this way: words give life; words bring death—you choose. What does this mean? It means you have never spoken a neutral word in your life.
Your words have direction to them. If your words are moving in the life direction, they will be words of encouragement, hope, love, peace, unity, instruction, wisdom, and correction. But if your words are moving in a death direction, they will be words of anger, malice, slander, jealousy, gossip, division, contempt, racism, violence, judgment, and condemnation. Your words have direction to them.
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Words. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!