Breaking the Code: When Words are Not What They Seem

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Plain English is hard to come by. Some of us struggle with directness, while others take diplomacy to an extreme. We are caught between people who speak with the bluntness of a club to the head and those who are so careful it is difficult to know whether they make a sound.

Worse still, some speak in code. Psychologists and other therapists do their best to break the code, to find the meaning inside.

You might have heard Governor Scott Walker’s address pulling out of the Republican Party (GOP) presidential race. You heard the words, but did you get the meaning? The first sentence of his announcement provides an example of words in disguise and an opportunity to analyze them:

“I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field.”

The “field” to which he referred includes more than a dozen competitors for the 2016 presidential nomination of the Republican Party. He went on to state it would be better if the voters had a limited number of alternatives in the run-up to producing a party standard-bearer.

The single sentence is revealing. Those 15 words did two things beyond informing us he was dropping out:

  1. The Governor gave a coded message to many of his Christian supporters.
  2. Mr. Walker offered a preposterous reason for his decision to leave the campaign. He tried to disguise his loss of public support as the cause of his decision.

The former candidate’s sentence can be decoded even without the help of the late Alan Turing, the man who broke the Nazi’s Enigma codes during World War II. The second word in Walker’s opening is “believe,” a powerful utterance for some of strong Christian faith. Even more significantly, he went on: “I believe I am being called …” This phrase carries with it the notion of a “calling,” associated with life direction provided by a supernatural entity. Ministers, such as Scott Walker’s father, often say they are called to the vocation of ministry. Not coincidentally, many of the candidate’s strongest supporters are on the religious right.

In effect, Mr. Walker’s sentence was partly addressed to his spiritual backers, letting them know he is keeping faith with them, and acting according to his (and their own) religious beliefs. By so doing, he provided them with a reason to think favorably of him if he chooses to run again for public office. Thus, one can imagine Mr. Walker’s desire is to be thought of as a man of God doing God’s will.

I can’t comment on the Governor’s private contact with a superior being, if indeed such occurred. Yet it is difficult to think that Scott Walker’s disappearing public support did not determine his decision. The notion that he might have ended his campaign after receiving “the call,” even were he leading in the polls, strains credulity. The Governor is playing his religious believers for chumps.

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Remember what the press said about Mr. Walker’s decision to exit the race. The following quote comes from the September 21st issue of the The Wall Street Journal:

“He led most polls in Iowa until mid-July, and regularly ranked among the top three or four contenders in national surveys of GOP primary voters. But after a lackluster performance in Wednesday’s GOP debate, he didn’t register any support in a CNN/ORC national poll conducted right afterward. …

“But his biggest problem appeared to be fundraising. Many of his top donors expressed concern in recent weeks that … he wouldn’t raise enough money to maintain a large campaign staff.”

Following Walker’s message to the faithful, the remainder of his sentence attempts to recast his political failure as an act of leadership:

“I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field.” Thus, Mr. Walker anoints himself a leader, not a loser. Moreover, he says he just wants to “help.” Wow, he is an altruist, too.

Instead of telling us all this, the Governor might have been frank:

“I have less than 1% support of the likely primary voters. I can understand why potential backers will not fund my campaign. Hats off to those who beat me.”

What Walker did, in a mere 15 words, was an act of “spin.” His simple sentence was reprehensible because he mocked his alleged faith, tried to play on the religious convictions of his followers, and fashioned himself not as the loser in the race, but as a leader who exemplified high principle and, perhaps, divine guidance.

Yes, political speech is an easy target. Who can forget Bill Clinton’s righteously angry statement, “I did not have sex with that woman!” This sentence defined “sex” as intercourse alone, thereby giving him license to deny the accusation of inappropriate behavior with a White House intern.

My conclusion is this: George Orwell, the author of 1984, was correct. We live in a time, as he predicted, when language’s meaning is torn syllable from syllable. Communication has always been hard enough. Now, not so long after Orwell imagined it, failure is sold to us as success and religious references play to the gullibility of the flock.

Sadly, much of this has occurred for millennia, but was thought dishonorable in times past. The difference now is that such deceit is considered clever by too many of those who notice, and honest by those who don’t.

Words matter, in therapy and out.

Especially in disguise.

The top images are called Reversible Head with Basket of Fruit, the work of Arcimboldo, 1590. If you take a close look, you’ll notice the painting on the left is an inversion of the one on the right. Thus, they represent a visual analogue of the essay’s topic: disguised speech. The bottom image is Governor Walker speaking in 2015, by Michael Vadon, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Leaving Life With an Empty Trunk

I recently watched a documentary on the life of Bela Bartok, the 20th century Hungarian classical composer. He died at age 64, still full of ideas yet to be put to music paper, not to be given the life that would allow us to be enriched by his creativity. He knew it and he regretted it, saying on his death bed that he had hoped to have left the world with an “empty trunk.” His “trunk,” occupied by what he could yet compose, had he “world enough and time,” was still full.

It strikes me that Bartok’s sense of responsibility to life is admirable. He believed that since he had come into this world with nothing, as all of us do, he should leave with nothing. He saw this as his obligation to himself, his fellow man, and to life itself. That is, to give everything that he had, to empty himself of whatever “good” or goods he had to give. In other words, to live as full and complete a life as possible in revealing the gifts that nature had bestowed upon him.

Creative people often feel chosen. They tend to believe that they have a “calling,” something that cannot be ignored. They write or compose, not because it is a way to make a living. Indeed, they often continue their creative efforts despite the fact that, like Bartok, they cannot make a living doing it (Bartok was about to be evicted from his New York City apartment when he died). These people persist, even without recognition, out of an “inner necessity.” They write, in a way, because they cannot do otherwise. Many people consider this to be something similar to the religious calling often described by clergy.

What is your calling? Perhaps you don’t feel you have one. But even if you lack this sense of driveness and purpose, Bartok’s example might still provide you with a model for life. I think that Bartok’s notion isn’t really very different from those athletes who say that they try to “leave it all on the field,” giving everything they have to the game they are playing. And, while most of us are not great heros, creative geniuses, or athletes, we can emulate this model if we choose: to live as fully and intensely as possible, work hard, love our friends and family passionately and well, seek always to enrich our knowledge and understanding, face challenges rather than running from them, and give the world whatever we have to give in order to make it, and us, better — in Bartok’s words, to arrive at the end of our days with a trunk that is empty.

To choose such a life rejects the alternative of dutiful routine and “quiet desperation.” It will also, I suspect, reduce your chance of regret. And what is regret? According to Janet Landman, it is “the persistence of the possible,” the aching reproach of the road not taken, the fear not faced, the effort not made, the life that might have been, “if only…”

Yes, the idea of living so that one might leave with “an empty trunk” has appeal.

I can think of worse philosophies of life.