Do actions really speak louder than words?


Generally speaking we behave as if we believe our words can adequately and accurately define our identity. If asked who we are we are we might gurgle out some episodic facts about ourselves and leave that small statement hanging as the essence of our identity. As if we can be defined inside the boundaries of few precise symbolic labels. Words may be necessary descriptors to identify certain aspects of ourselves, but there’s no reason to believe they are sufficient to encapsulate the depths of who we are.

We can use our words, like arrows in a verbal quiver, in an attempt to hit the target of what we think is our true identity is, but no matter how sincere we are, it’s still no guarantee of accuracy. One of the most common deal breakers in terms of verbal accuracy is our tendency to confuse the map with the journey. Words are a map, a symbolic representation of something actual, but they are not the actual journey. No one ever drank the word “water”, only the actual substance. We are not what we say we are, we are what we do. The truth is, we are what our behaviors say, not necessarily what our words say. We often attempt to project a verbal map that is not representative of what our actions say, but more what we’d like to think of ourselves, or have others think of us. If our words and action are compared, the relationship may be dramatically unequal.

While some of us have used the cliché “actions speak louder than words”, many of us miss the depth of profound truth buried in that statement. Our behaviors define us. Our real identity is spoken by what we do in total, not by the words that frequently frolic and sputter so casually out of our mouths. If what we say agrees with what we do, our identity has integrity, (wholeness) if our words and deeds disagree, our identity lacks integrity. Again sincerity is no guarantee of accuracy.

Developing a clear cognitive understanding of ourselves is not a passive act by any means. It is not easy to examine ourselves at face value. As humans, many of us appear to think we ride the crest of a wave of verbal fictions. Honest self-examination requires more than magic words puffed up to a sincere self-image with a mixture of ignorance and delusion. Historically speaking, when our species woke up enough to begin the process of self-examination, we discovered that our nature was somewhat monstrous. For one thing, we found ourselves killing and and eating our living neighbors.  This inborn need to put ourselves first, coupled with our biological dependency on cooperative relationships is a confusing proposition to figure out. This could be one of the reasons we sometimes use the word “humane” as if to be human one is characterized by tenderness, compassion, and sympathy. This is a pleasant fiction, but it does not represent our behavioral communication. This is not to imply that humane could not represent our character as humans, but that it currently does not. The real measure of human ethics is expressed through our behaviors.

When all the mist is burned away, our behaviors are what truly reveal our identity. Reality, unlike our words, is not capable of lying, and it is unswervingly expressed through behaviors. (Relationships) If we want to look at our true identity in an undistorted mirror, our behaviors must define our words, not the other way around.

An example of the confusion between words and identity can be seen through the words and deeds of a father in the Congo Republic. Nicholas D. Kristof, a OP-ED columnist for the New York Times spent some time traveling in the Congo. He found one father who had lost two of his eight daughters to malaria, but spent money on alcohol, a cell phone and tobacco instead of mosquito nets for his remaining children. At the same time his behaviors clearly communicate the values that define his identity, his verbal reasoning was along the lines of not having the money.[1] This “not enough money” view to the father made perfect sense to him. His words appeared to him to explain his behaviors. When asked why he prioritized alcohol over his daughter’s education, he simply “looked pained”.

To accurately understand the values we hold we must use our behaviors as the standard. The fact that this man lives in a culture where this behavior is not only tolerated, but encouraged and expected by his peers makes it all the more likely he will believe his own wordy self-deception over his behaviors. To call it polite fiction, or any other name for that matter, the net result is a wake of destructive and self-perpetuating poverty riding on a frothy broth of words. The thin veneer of words that mask our behavioral violence is by no means confined to people of the Congo. It is no different for us as individuals than it is for us as a global culture.

Individuals and whole cultures can become occupied with behaviors aligned around building social status, obtaining possessions and tending lawns while the larger community in which we live suffers in educational and resource squalor. These actions and inactions are a clear statement of our values.

It is possible to negotiate life without considering how our behavior communicates our real identity. In this observational poverty we do not have to face the unpleasant nature of our true selves, but this willful and/or negligent fiction comes with a heavy cost. Without clear vision we can never see our way to decide who we want to be, and choose to develop the discipline to be an expression of that choice. Without vision we become prisoners inside the poverty of our own ignorance and self-deception.

We can, and do easily slip into a verbal shell game with ourselves where we see what is convenient and cover up or ignore what is inconvenient. Our focus on specious words over the reality of our behavioral deeds contribute by neglect or active violations to massive suffering on wider scales of place and time is not only a clear communication of our values, but our complicity in our continuing poverty.

Nations war with other nations using the same verbal veneer for justification that we do as individuals. The prominence of this blindness demonstrates that we are neither aware of the source of our poverty, nor our potential in light of the difficult task of facing the truth, even if that truth is harsh and unflattering. We waddle semiconsciously to a slaughterhouse that is built on our own cognitive neglect and lack of disciplined effort. Integrity is the key to choice and this is not measured by our words alone, but by the sum total of our actions.

If we boil our current condition, and our only possible path toward a more nourishing state of being down to its essence it might look something like this: Actions speak louder than words.

[1] Nicholas D. Kristof New York Times article: “Moonshine or the Kids?” May 22, 2010


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