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Word Rot

Unless you are extraordinarily unfortunate, every problem you ever face will have been faced in some form by someone who came before you. That person may have already shared the story of that challenge, and that story might have melded with other tales to form collective wisdom, and a few distillations of that wisdom may already have become full-fledged clichés.

We send our newly minted adults marching out into the world armed with a thousand platitudes, but each proverb has been so stripped of context and emotional weight that by the time we realize the tool we needed was in our toolkit all along, we’ve already paid the price of not having it.

Words were supposed to be immortal, but they, too, decay. The first person who speaks a hidden truth to you is a visionary, and their words open discourse that was impossible before your world was illuminated. The second emissary of the same truth is still welcome, though hardly as necessary. But the third person is behind the times, and the fourth embarrassingly so. Revelation becomes common knowledge becomes cliché. We learn to ignore the messenger if we’ve heard this message before.

But we leave words to rot before we have even bothered to fully grasp their significance. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is worn into the fabric of our minds, yet we still make irresponsible spot judgments. Everyone knows that “the early bird gets the worm”, but few people recognize and seize opportunities before the crowd. We throw wisdom away because repetition is boring.

But there’s another reason we ignore common sayings: platitudes are not good enough. At best, clichés teach what to do in specific situations, but that’s useless unless it also teaches us to recognize the situations where the cliché applies. If our “wisdom” is only helpful in hindsight, then our regurgitated quips are offered purely for our own smug self-assurance.

We can do better, but it isn’t easy. We have already adapted to old words—but what about new words, wielded in new ways? We have no defenses against them. New words haul us to our feet and stare into our eyes, and when they deliver their warnings, we—for once—are actually listening. I know you, these new words can whisper. I have walked the path you tread, and it only leads further into the dark.

We are not easily convinced. We do not accept even the most electrifying speeches without a fight—and perhaps for good reason, as so much “wisdom” is flawed or incomplete. For words to shake us out of our disinterested stupor, they must find a gap in our practiced armor of indifference. Every essay or article or story we craft only has one chance to slip through its reader’s defenses and reach the person within before that hole is sealed for good.

It falls on those of us who craft words, then, to forever search out new ways to reveal human truths, desperate for some innovative ploy to reunite you with wisdom you have heard a thousand times but never known.