Monday, July 6, 2015

Cough Drop Pep Talks

This morning, my cough drop wrapper spoke to me.  Oh, not out loud.  But I noticed that the white wrapper trellised in dark yellow also bore bright blue markings.  Unfolded and smoothed out, the wrapper yielded up a series of brief inspirational sayings, like “Get back in there champ!”, “Go for it!”, and “Be resilient!”  Every wrapper in my pocket carried a different set of messages.  Only one admitted, “A PEP TALK IN EVERY DROP.”

Why?  I mean, who reads cough drop wrappers?  I do evidently, but I never have until today, and I’ve used Hall’s Menthol Cough Drops forever.  If the wrappers have been talking to me all along, I haven’t been listening. So why does Hall’s bother? I can’t imagine that little printed pep talks on wrappers usually scrunched up and tossed without a glance sell more cough drops than the next brand whose wrappers remain mute and silent.  I can’t imagine Hall’s needs them to.  They make great menthol cough drops.  I didn’t choose them for the printed wisdom.  I chose them for their blessed ability to silence the coughs induced by postnasal drip before they can ricochet through the meditative silence of my monastery chapel at the worst possible moments.  I would continue to use them if the wisdom disappeared.  I imagine most customers are like me.  So why bother with the printed pep talks?

Perhaps one day an anonymous cough drop wrapper designer in Hall’s wrapper-printer department suddenly gave in to the human craving for words.  And crave them we do.  We were made, after all, in the image of the divine Wordsmith who fashioned everything we know from an unlikely palate of possibilities boiling in the primal darkness using nothing but words (see Genesis 1). To top off the work, the Wordsmith’s final words created us in the Speaker’s likeness and set us as untried lieutenants to collaborate in that first garden world summoned out of nothing by the sheer power of language.

The first human beings learned the hard way, as we all do, that not every word is trustworthy.  We reaped the fruit, literally, of the first lie told to a gullible listener not yet well versed in the art of discernment (see Genesis 3).  And with the fruit, we harvested new capacities to wield words to deceive, to harm, to tear down the harmonies we long for.  But we have never forgotten our first essential truth:  by words we were made, by words we were woven together into the fabric of the universe, by words we learned and grew and forged bonds with other hearers in the vibrant ever-changing network we call life, by words we became ourselves.  Without words, we are nothing but small mute shells forever concealing our story in seed. And we couldn’t bear it.  Why else would Helen Keller have bothered to fight so hard to make her way out of the silent isolation into which she was born? Why would Annie Sullivan’s fingers moving in her palm have touched her so powerfully that they brought her finally as speaker and writer into the heart of the human communion?

It was not accident but insight born of experience that led the psalmists to describe the shadowy half-life of the dead as they did:  “the silence” (Psalm 115:17). In the grave, human beings did not cease to exist, but their isolation was even worse than annihilation.  Unable to hear or speak, they were forever cut off from one another, from the living, from God in a solitude unbroken by any word.  The cliché “silent as the grave” is born of a very old memory and a very old belief.

When Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, reflected on the creed’s statement, “[Christ] descended into hell,” he spoke of hell as utter loneliness so sealed in upon itself that no word of love can penetrate it to draw its inhabitants into relationship with the speaker or with other hearers.  This is not the silence of the deaf or the mute but the silence of those have severed themselves absolutely and by choice from language.  “The silence” is the antithesis of our humanity.[1]  Even those deprived of hearing and speech by physical circumstances, like Helen Keller,  refuse that silence and find ways to break out of it with gestures or facial expressions or pictorial art. And when they can’t, others find ways to reach into their silence to bridge that terrible, unbearable gap even without any sign of success.  Think of a mother talking daily to her comatose child daily, year after year.

No wonder our craving for words, for the touch of a speaker, for the awareness of other hearers even if we may never know who they are, is so great that we are willing to write and to read little unimaginative words of encouragement on a cough drop wrapper.  “Words are us” is not an advertising cliché.  It is the fundamental statement of who we are and yearn to be.

Thank you, Hall’s!

 Copyright 2015, Abbey of St. Walburga

[1] Joseph, Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 2nd edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press,  2004)  Kindle Books, loc 3574-3692.