Monday, January 25, 2010

Coco Provokes a Thought

Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen.
I don't own a television, so I've only been passingly aware of the whole O'Brien/Leno/NBC kerfuffle, but this statement by Conan O'Brien on his final airing of The Tonight Show resonates with me. I'm particularly impressed someone in such a high-powered industry, holding such coveted job, would include the qualification "and [if] you're kind". My opinion of this guy--whose existence I'm barely familiar with--just rose pretty high.

And now I'm going to be precise: The reason why this resonates with me is kindness is something I hold in great esteem; I think it's a trait more important to human society than intelligence--and I'm already strongly biased toward rating intelligence above all sorts of other impressive human attributes, so for me, that's a big admission.

Words that resonate, whether spoken or written, have power over us regardless of what mouth they come out of. A television host's closing monologue is hardly the place to get your wisdom from, but everyone's brain cherry-picks the things they remember. Thus, the power of words is democratic. If you say something that has impact, which strikes people as being true, they will remember it regardless of who you are.

Here's a sentence that resonated with me when I was just a kid, and which has stuck with me my whole life:
Never believe in anything completely; it's a sign of weakness.
That statement came from the lips of actor Jon Pertwee playing the title character in Dr Who during the early seventies (I watched re-runs of these; I was but a wee lass when Mr Pertwee finished his stint as the Doctor!)

The words read quite harshly on paper; Mr Pertwee's good humour and posh British accent gentled their delivery considerably. Regardless, the statement's condemnation of extremist thinking and its promotion of open-minded, healthy skepticism made a lasting impact on the twelve-year-old JJ--a kid who went on to love the sciences and to consider all religions valid.

Who wrote that line? I have no idea, but his or her words reached through a television screen and made an impact that lasted decades on at least one kid.

It gives hope to all us writers working in obscurity: You don't need to be anybody; you just need to write powerfully. You just need to speak the deep truths clearly.

There is the matter of who the message will resonate with, however. That one line from Dr Who resonated with me because I already considered it to be true; I just hadn't managed to put that thought into words yet myself.

Another person might be very uncomfortable with the idea of never believing anything--such as the claims of their religion, for example--completely. They wouldn't consider that statement a deep truth, and although the discomfort might make them remember the line, eventually their mind would dismiss it as untrue and forget the statement.

And that's the wisdom underlying the truism "You can't please everyone". We all have different beliefs, and thus our brains cherry-pick their own truths. You can write something that resonates powerfully with a lot of people, but the nature of humanity is such that the words cannot resonate with everyone. Therefore, it's not a good idea to get too upset over one person not liking what you wrote, because that's inevitable.


Have you any lines of wisdom from oddball sources that have stuck with you for years? I'd be delighted if you shared them.

Do you agree with my hypothesis that the words resonated because you already agreed with them, or do you think the words shaped what you would come to believe? I'd love to hear what you think.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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