Language is one of the most striking features that distinguishes humans as the beings that we are. It is the tool that has allowed us to achieve so much, both in the world of thought and material development. It is clear that language has immense power. As Baha’u’llah says, “it is through its potency and animating spirit that the people of the world have attained so eminent a position.”1 But what are the best ways to use, and not abuse, language? Here are a few of my thoughts on Baha’u’llah’s guidance:
Baha’u’llah says that words “should be both impressive and penetrating.”2 Perhaps that means they should really have an impact on people, and no doubt a positive one. Communication should not be on the surface: it should be a profound exchange. For this to happen, words need to meet some requirements.
Firstly, words need to “be uttered wholly for the sake of God”. When we speak for the sake of God, we express ourselves not for self-promotion, or to put down others, but out of selflessness. This is vital because the impact of our words is
conditional upon refinement which in turn is dependent upon hearts which are detached and pure.3
When we speak free of ego we act as a pure channel which allows our words to have a more positive effect on others for they are not tainted with self and negativity.
Secondly we need to construct our expression “with due regard unto the exigencies of the occasion and the people.”4 That is, we need to cater our words to the specific context which we are in and the people we are talking to. This does not mean that we should be fake with people but instead we should take their worldview, mindset, and emotional state into consideration. We need to temper our words with moderation. Baha’u’llah says that we need moderation in all things and the way we express ourselves is no different. Specifically in regard to verbal expression, He says that moderation has “to be combined with tact and wisdom.”5 This allows the speaker to “carefully deliver his words at the appropriate time and place.”6
This is all related to the obvious fact that not all words have the same effect. Some have a positive effect, some an adverse effect. In this age of individualism, speaking our mind is seen as a sign of being true to ourselves. However, at times this can be self-indulgent and even hurtful to those who we are talking to. That is why we need to choose our words thoughtfully. As Baha’u’llah explains,
One word may be likened unto fire, another unto light, and the influence which both exert is manifest in the world. Therefore an enlightened man of wisdom should primarily speak with words as mild as milk, that the children of men may be nurtured and edified thereby and may attain the ultimate goal of human existence which is the station of true understanding and nobility.7
This is not to say that we need to water down the truth and hide how we feel. “Truthfulness is the foundation of all the virtues of mankind,”8 so we must always express ourselves honestly. We just need to channel this honesty through the filter of tact and wisdom. If we do not do this, our words may lack love and kindness, and could become “as a deadly poison.”
But it is not just the choice of words that is important, it is also the amount which we speak. Simply talking too much can be detrimental. Baha’u’llah urges the seeker of truth to
observe silence and refrain from idle talk. For the tongue is a smoldering fire, and excess of speech a deadly poison. Material fire consumeth the body, whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul. The force of the former lasteth but for a time, whilst the effects of the latter endureth a century.9
But what is so bad about talking too much? If we think about the meaning of excess, it implies that there is an intended purpose for speech and anything beyond that is excess. So what according to the Baha’i writings is the intended purpose of speech? Baha’u’llah has explained that the capacity to communicate is in fact at the very heart of the purpose of human life. He says that God has
bestowed upon thee the power of utterance, that thou mayest make mention of Mine exalted Self amidst My creatures.10
Kindly speech is also “the lodestone of the hearts of men.”11 So ideally, we will use the powers of language and speech to praise God and bring joy and unity to others. So what then lies outside of these two uses?
The first thing is that when we talk beyond these purposes we can all too often start gossiping about other people. This in itself can seem harmless: discussing the people we know and what they are doing in their lives. But this can all too easily lead to backbiting, which is to criticise or speak poorly of others. And what are the effects of this? As Baha’u’llah says,
backbiting quencheth the light of the heart, and extinguisheth the life of the soul…12
Whose hearts does it quench? The hearts of the speaker and the hearer. More than this, backbiting tears at the very fabric of society; it causes disunity because if people backbite, and this becomes a common practice, then people cannot trust each other. If I leave the room and have to wonder what people are saying about me then that shows that there is not enough trust between us. And if there is not enough trust, there is disunity – for unity can only occur when we can depend on each other.
So we can see that words are tools that can be used or misused. Our task is to use them to create a joyful and unified world. We do this by drawing nearer to God, purifying ourselves and speaking with purpose.
- Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah Revealed After the Kitab-i-Aqdas, p.172 [↩]
- Ibid., p.172 [↩]
- Ibid., p.172 [↩]
- Ibid., p.172 [↩]
- Ibid., p.198 [↩]
- Ibid., p.172 [↩]
- Ibid., p.173 [↩]
- John Esslemont, Baha’u’llah and the New Era, p.85 [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, Gleanings From the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 265 [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p.12 [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, Gleanings From the Writings of Baha’u’llah p. 289 [↩]
- Ibid., p.265 [↩]