The Failure of Words is the Beginning of Truth

Hubbard Glacier

By Angela Noel

July 27, 2017

I saw four-hundred-year-old ice fall into the sea. A crack like thunder preceded the calving. Then shards of ice cascaded down the face of the glacier and crashed into Disenchantment Bay, Alaska.

The largest calving glacier in North America, Hubbard is advancing into the ocean. This slow march into the water didn’t seem particularly spectacular to me until I saw it. Now, I understand.

The night before, my husband and I had sipped red wine while sitting on the uppermost deck of the cruise ship. We watched mountain glaciers, like starched shirt fronts between the brown and green shoulders of enormous mountains, slip by. The summer solstice mocked the night, refusing the approaching darkness, no matter how late the hour. I thought that night had given me all I needed to know of the wonders of Alaska. But I was wrong.

Summer Solstice in Alaska
A view from the deck of the Alaskan coastline on the longest day of 2017.

Tempted to avoid the chill and the crowds of other cruisers gathered at the  deck rails at the bow of the ship, I almost missed seeing Hubbard the next day. But the knowledge that I might never be back to see a glacier up close drove me to bear witness. I bundled up, made sure I had gloves, hat, and scarf for a June encounter with a seven-mile-wide ancient ice cube and joined the ranks of spectators.

But Here, Words Fail

I can’t define for you how it felt to be that close to history. Over the loudspeaker, we heard a gentleman tell the passengers how the natives of Alaska thought of the glacier as a living thing. They refused to speak in its presence. They felt it could interfere with their lives if they disrespected it. The rumbles of “white thunder” punctuated their lives as the glacier shed triangles of ice into the water and detached even larger and more dangerous sections below the water.

Angela on the deck of a cruise ship
Me, bundled up and glacier gazing.

I’m a writer, so I want the words I write to help you feel the chill in the air and the jostling of bodies along the decks as fellow travelers snap hundreds, maybe thousands, of pictures. I want you to witness in your mind’s eye the milky chalk-color of the water where the glacier lives. Obscene in its beauty and its total disregard for anything smaller, or less magnificent than itself, the glacier makes its inexorable advance into the sea. Though artists want to transmit beauty–and often do–we can only evoke imagination or memory. Said another way, we offer the warm, sweet smell of chocolate cake, but not the cake itself.

I Want More

Maybe these words hint of truth about the glacier or about the nature of its beauty, and the wonder of experience. I hope they do. But, I want more than that for you, and for me.

Truth,” says Father Anthony De Mello, psychologist and Jesuit priest,”is never expressed in words. Truth is sighted suddenly, as a result of a certain attitude.” Father De Mello didn’t mean sighted with the eyes. He meant, sighted with the heart–experienced outside of the limiting context of words, pictures, or any other medium. The wonders of art and imagination, or the magnificence of nature hint at truth. But a representation can never be the thing itself.

Get an Attitude

To sight the truth requires a willingness to experience everything, to pay attention and gently challenge what we thought we knew before. The smells, the tastes . . . to eat the thing, and see the thing, and wonder about it, too. The glacier can’t tell me how to live, it offers no advice. It gives me what I accept from it. And I can’t tell you what that is. I sighted truth. I stood in awe.

Unfortunately, neither I, nor many others much smarter and wiser than me, can offer the experience of truth itself. However, I can offer a few thoughts on preparing to receive truth from our experiences. Such simple things–as simple as waking up and deciding we haven’t seen it all yet–transform us if we let them.

Tongass National Forest
A glacial lake in Tongass National Forest in Ketchikan, Alaska
Here’s a Few Ideas to Try:
  • Pay attention–the smallest shift in a thing you thought you knew can change everything. Find pleasure in the tiniest things. The way a ripe nectarine smells. Or the soft velvet on the underside of a maple leaf.
  • Do stuff–accept invitations. Go on trips. Watch a new play. Listen to music. Gaze at the stars for no particular reason at all.
  • Observe yourself–ask yourself why you’re thinking or feeling something and truly want to know the answer.
  • Listen to people–not only their words, but what might be behind them. Spend the time to look in another person’s eyes and focus on nothing but giving your full attention. You’ll hear more than the words.

And tomorrow we might not be together
I’m no prophet, I don’t know natures way
So I’ll try to see into your eyes right now
And stay right here, ’cause these are the good old days.
Carly Simon- Anticipation

Your Turn: How do you sight truth? What are your ideas for creating an attitude for openness?

Author: Angela Noel

On a quest to become a better human, I write about parenting, leadership, and personal development. I tell my stories so you can find your own.

53 thoughts on “The Failure of Words is the Beginning of Truth”

  1. Wonderful piece, Angela! And, I’m jealous that you were able to experience an ice slide on a glacier. Also, I have learned that a great way to see, experience, observe, and be present is to be alongside my children. They are great writing resources day in and day out. ❤️

    1. Your posts reflect your sense of wonder in watching, playing with, and teaching your children. So I can easily believe you’re often plugged in to the magic and music of life. Thank you for reading, and adding your thought. I love hearing from you!

  2. Wow – lucky you to observe such an amazing sight – and more than a sight, an amazing truth. I enjoyed every word in this post. Hmmm, the answer to your question? I seem to find truth when I write – when I just let go of my thoughts and let my writing take over. Truth comes.

    1. I think you’re right, being in the flow of creativity does feel like we’re channeling something real Something both magical and true. Thank you for reading and for contributing to the art world through your work!

  3. Wow. Awesome piece. I never wanted to go to Alaska, too cold! But now I just may have to get there once and see a glacier. Thanks for sharing your experience!

    1. Thanks, Lisa. We had a few warm-ish days on the trip. But definitely not a warm weather destination. It truly is a unique and beautiful place. I’ve no doubt you’d enjoy it if you decide to go (but do bring a coat). Thank you for the compliment, means a lot to me.

  4. Thank you for reminding me to let my experience transform me instead of fighting it. It’s something I know but not something I always allow. Sometimes I fight instead of receive.

    1. I’m so glad you got something out of this. I think you said it beautifully (and accurately). We all have to allow ourselves to be changed, and that’s not always easy. Thank you!

    1. I agree with you! It’s a deliberate act, so it makes sense that practice is part of the process. Thank you so much for stopping by and adding your thought.

  5. Wow, just ‘wow’. As a writer, these words struck me most: “we offer the warm, sweet smell of chocolate cake, but not the cake itself.” Genius. As a mom, and, well, a human being, your Carly Simon lyric really got to me: “these are the good old days”. Indeed.

    1. Thank you! Your post on summer speaks volumes on the good old days, too. I think writing our reflections down, or somehow transforming the good from a lived experience into something else helps cement them in time. I love the written word, but I can’t ever let that take the place of being in the world and living in it. Thank you, again, for the comment. Means a lot to me!

  6. Interesting post, Angela, which resonates with me. A couple of comments: I often find myself “wordless” in nature, which is probably why I am not a famous nature writer! And for me, I would add the tip of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. For me this means hiking and cycling locally, because for various reasons I can’t travel too far. Yet there is such magic to be experienced just down the road!

    1. Great addition! I fully agree with you. We don’t need the exotic to find wonder, it’s out there waiting for us. Thank you so much for adding your thoughts.

  7. This is truly an inspirational post! Words can convey so much but there are some things that we miss if we don’t notice the experiences around us!

  8. This piece left me breathless, Angela. So beautifully written, writing about the limits of writing and all art to describe the beauty of nature and of human experience. My favorite line, “like starched shirt fronts between the brown and green shoulders of enormous mountains.” Your prose is poetic!

    1. I’m glad the words held some meaning for you! I often think of words as buckets for meaning–perfect yet clumsy at the same time. The compliment means a lot to me. The deepest, greatest love I have for art and beauty comes from how it can bring us together. I’m grateful you, and your work, are a part of my world.

  9. Your post made me want to go to Alaska. Im big on truly observing nature. You have to take those moments in life. I agree about taking the time to really listen to a person. I love what you said about that in your post.

    1. Thank you, Ivy! You absolutely should go to Alaska. I had no idea what would find me there, and the experience was more than well worth it. Thank you for reading and sharing your comment. 🙂

  10. Ooh I love this. I have always felt that the best way to find truth & to learn, is to listen. And truly listen. The wisest people I know, are the best listeners. How can one learn anything, if they’re always talking. Always emitting. Never taking anything in. Also, beautiful pictures, Angela. I’d love to visit Alaska one day. It must’ve been an amazing experience.

    1. I hope you do go to Alaska–I know no other landscape like it. Only 7% of the land has humans living on it!
      Listening is such a key component to learnings. I could use practice in this area. Particularly when I already think I understand or have made up my mind. Staying in listening mode and not being afraid to have my beliefs challenged isn’t something that comes naturally, but it is something I want to keep practicing.
      It’s hard NOT to take a good picture in Alaska–all credit to nature. 😉

  11. I love that quote on truth from Father De Mello. I have had that feeling of yes this is true. Agree with your ideas of things to try. One of the reason I enjoy travel and conversations that explore possibilities. Vacation in Western Newfoundland July 2017 and saw icebergs and they also made me pause. Thank you this is an wonderful post.

    1. I didn’t know (but probably should have) that there are icebergs in Newfoundland. It sounds like an amazing place to be. I’m so glad you had the chance to read the post and add your comment.

  12. We learn how tribes believed the sun was an angry god, how they sacrificed virgins into mouths of volcano’s because they believed truly believed in a story. So I elieve we bring words and senses alive by writing. Your post is great and photo’s superb . I believe we have to experience life to write to listen watch and absorb, that way we can bring alive our words and indeed leave a little magic behind.

    1. Wonderful, Ellen. The story is such a powerful, tool. I read in a book I absolutely love called, THE ART OF POSSIBILITY, about everything in life being a story–it’s all invented. So how can we go about telling ourselves the best version of the story and going about making it come true? It’s an interesting idea. Your comment reminded me to go re-read that section. Thank you for reading and offering your thoughts.

  13. Great post and your reflections at the end remind me very much of Mindfulness in action. Still the mind and pay attention to the now; hear, see and breathe it in. It’s a very good practice not only for writers, but for everyone in what seem to be an ever fast paced existence.

    I think a lot of tribal communities and those living closer to subsistence are more in tune with the natural order and the past. Westernisation has lost that in society these days and people flash by in life not paying enough attention to what they are doing to their environment. It leads to an SEP field (SomeoneElsesProblem). I think that was a Terry Pratchet concept that stuck with me as both funny and sad.

    Maybe writers and artists are closer to the spirit of mindfulness. Well good ones. Listening and people watching is paramount to creating realistic characters. Which rolls back to that mindfulness concept.

    Excellent post, and to see a glacier drop is a real moment of Nature x

    1. Gary, I think you’re on to something. Creative people do look into things more deeply and more mindfully. I think it reaches beyond folks who think of themselves as artists (though I believe everyone is an artist in one way or the other.) I think when we choose to be thoughtful, aware and deliberate in seeking to open ourselves to possibility amazing things happen.
      Your stories wouldn’t be possible without a fantastic imagination and the ability to think beyond “this” world. So much goodness comes from tapping into that energy flow.

      1. Don’t get me wrong I do think most people are capable too; creatives have to be by the nature of what they do in order to capture something tangible; be it art or a character that is relatable. Outside of that its all too easy to sit in a bubble world and go with the flow (been there and looking back it sucked!!). I’ve always had a vivid imagination, but tapping into it required a more mindful awareness. It might “simply” be the modern world is too easy to get lost in; fast paced, convenience food, recreation at ones fingertips. Perhaps the existence challenge is not as close and with that the mental acuity has relaxed and needs a push to get going again.

  14. I love this Angela. The majesty of nature sure knows how to strip away the filter lens of our egos and mind so that our souls can see the truth. I have always said that to truly be present with another so that you really see and hear the essence of there soul, is the greatest gift you can give another.

    1. What a beautiful way to put it! I do believe listening with much more than our ears, and seeing with more than our eyes is the great gift we as humans were given. I know I need to use it more. It’s wonderful to see such a community of people who feel the same!

  15. “I can’t define for you how it felt to be that close to history” – a phrase to live by. Like yourself, I spend many hours searching for the right words to share my global experience and often times find myself frustrated and failing. I’ve come to realize some experiences can’t, and shouldn’t, be replicated. The ones that words can come close to describing are yours to keep!

    1. I think you’re right. We’re always talking in my house about fantastic vacations and we think about how we can do it all again–but we know, as you point out, that we can’t. The moment, like life, is precious because it’s so fleeting. You said it beautifully. Thank you for adding your thoughts!

  16. Love this. One way I have learned to cultivate openness is through humility… realizing that you have only had your mind and your experiences – a pretty narrow view of things – and therefore acknowledging there’s so much you don’t know. And then you can be open to everyone and everything else and what it might have to teach you.

    1. Thank you, Amber. Humility is a huge component of wonder. You articulated that point perfectly. Thank you for reading, and adding your thoughtful comment.

      1. You’re welcome:) thanks for visiting our blog as well! Oow fun. This is a good time time of the year to go, the humidity level start to drop. We actually are about to blog a camping tips post here soon. If you have any questions though just ask🙂

  17. First of all spectacular photos from Alaska! I went a little over a year ago and I loved it too! Second what you mention about being fully present is very important these days when everyone is busy multi-tasking (doing many things poorly). I do find that I have a deep appreciation for something and notice something new when I see it with my full attention :).

    Eh the thing about accepting invites haha it’s usually me it feels like doing the inviting to people who seem to want to wait until the last minute to respond/commit (waiting for something better to pop up). Or they respond and then don’t even show up. Oh well!

    1. Alaska is amazing! I’m glad you thought the same. Being present in the moment is a lot easier when so much grand and beautiful nature is around. I find the hardest part for me is in those ordinary everyday moments. It’s always a challenge and I’m glad to read that you find the time to give your full attention. I think these things matter! Thank you for commenting. 🙂

  18. What a wonderful article Angela, and one I missed first time around. How wonderful to have the experience; we stood on the Athabasca Glacier last year and found it hard to comprehend how much it is shrinking year after year. And your advice is so spot on: do, see, experience!

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