The Power of Language

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing….only I will remain.”

I first encountered these words reading an interview with Stephen Colbert during which he expounds on the power of fear to manipulate, defining fear as “…an attempt to impose tyranny over someone’s mind. It’s an act of oppression.” The words didn’t strike me then as I had no major fears in my life to relate them to – I couldn’t attach my own meaning to them. To experience the full impact of language requires a marriage between message and timing, where you read or hear exactly what you need to at precisely the right time. When this rare matrimony is achieved, language evolves beyond a means of communication into an innervating, protective force the likes of which few other mediums can approach.

Dune is the most famous Science Fiction book of all time. A philosophical fantasy tale, it tells the fascinating story of a Duke’s son and his succession to power on a harsh alien world. On his way to the throne, Paul Atreides faces endless trials and hardships, as if the universe were testing the strength of his soul before granting him the right to rule. His very first test attempts to determine his humanity through exposure to extreme simulated pain. An animal would instantly retreat from the sensation of pain, but a human will endure it knowing that something greater exists on the other side. He is warned that if he does not have the strength to endure it, the gom jabbar will undoubtedly kill him. Faced with the threat of losing his life and legacy and immense fear, Paul recites an ancient teaching from his mother, the Litany Against Fear quoted above. The words ignite his determination, they empower him to be brave in the face of death and survive the trial. It was when reading these words for the second time, just a few weeks ago, that they finally hit home.

I graduated from college this spring, and so along with many others I had to abandon the people I had lived with and loved for the past four years of my life. Following this departure, I moved to a new city 10 hours from my home where I don’t know a single soul; went from living off of my parents’ money in a house of seven to sustaining myself in an apartment of one; and started working on a Ph.D that I feel terrifically unqualified for. Fear has built a house in my head, infecting my thoughts with its own.

It is only with this litany, these powerful words, that I am able to remain steadfast in the face of fear and continue paddling forward in a swelling sea of uncertainty.

The power of language is in the experience of truth. All it takes is a set of words to let you know that someone, somewhere, has endured your challenges and survived. It’s easy to forget this in an existence riddled with cliché quotations and corporate marketing campaigns meant to empower you into buying their products. Look beyond the surface of syntax and attach your own meaning. Find the mantra that lifts you into a higher state, the sentence that subsumes your soul and leaves nothing left to stop you.


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