Recent tragic world events have got me wondering if that old axiom has any truth in it. I get as angry as anybody else when terrorism lifts its ugly head, and want to bring out the bombs and missiles. Certainly bombs and missiles have their place, and sometimes they need to do what they do. I think we can agree that when military force is required, bombs are altogether more effective than pens.
But pens have their place too. In every war, crisis, and disaster there have been writers – like steady clocks ticking away in the midst of the thunder and lightning – who not only gave voice to our fears and our spirit, but on occasion warned us of things needing to be corrected. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle brought about sweeping changes in the meat-packing industry. And when President Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which depicted the horrors of human slavery, he said “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.” Nearly a century later another president, Franklin Roosevelt, was all in favor of John Steinbeck writing a novel to showcase the evils of the Nazi regime (read more about it in John Steinbeck Goes to War: The Moon is Down as Propaganda by my friend and old English professor Donald V. Coers). And one of the quotes that most inspires and humbles me belongs to young Anne Frank, the little girl who took up her pen and scribbled it in her famous diary not long before she was sent to the concentration camp and her death. “In spite of everything,” she wrote, “I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
It’s that faith, that hope, that must sustain us in dark times. There is great evil in the world, to be sure. But there is also great good.
And powerful, well-chosen words oftentimes, in addition to warning us of of storm clouds looming, communicate that faith and hope when we most need it.