Few Words: An Elaborated Digression on Brevity

I shall be so brief that I have already finished.

Salvador Dali

The most valuable of talents is that of never using two words where one will do.

Thomas Jefferson

We talk too much and so often too loudly without listening. I blame social media and Bravo TV for part of this, along with our ever-growing self-absorption. Through these time-consuming forms of adult entertainment, people now believe that talking over others, loudness and vulgarity, and attacking without listening make a point. P.J. O’Rourke once asked who thought it would be a good idea to create a means of communication like social media that would expose the world to what everyone thinks.

When I was a kid, we had a bar soap called Lava. The ad for it read, “Lava, with Pumice.” It was the grittiest soap, like real ground lava with shards of glass thrown in for good measure. It got the dirt and grime off, along with a couple of layers of skin. Heaven help you if you tried to use it on your face. What passes for discussion or dialogue today I find to be the verbal equivalent of good old Lava Soap.

I’d argue that a very few words, written or spoken, can have far greater impact than the verbose.

I am not trying to make a political point here. All segments of the political spectrum are guilty of coarsening our culture. No one’s hands are clean.

The brilliant author Norman Maclean, in his masterpiece A River Runs Through It, told of how his father, a pastor, taught him to be a good writer. Each time he polished a piece of prose or analysis, he presented it to his father, who inevitably said, “It’s good. Now make it shorter.”

Elmore Leonard told prospective writers, “When you write, leave out all the parts that readers skip.” Louise Brooks wrote, “Writing is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent elimination.” Pascal famously wrote, “I have made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

Many magnificent examples of brevity in speech throughout history successfully captured the moment, the point, and the audience.

The late historian Barbara Tuchman was asked how one should teach history. Her answer was, “Tell stories.” William F. Buckley, Jr., was asked why his vision of utopia had never occurred on earth. He replied, “Invincible ignorance.” Andrew Jackson, when told that the Supreme Court led by John Marshall, had ruled against him in a case dealing with Indian Removal, reportedly said, “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” Stalin, when told the Pope wanted Catholic oppression stopped in the Soviet Union, stated, “The Pope? How many divisions does he have?” Ronald Reagan, when asked whether he trusted the Russians in negotiations said, “Trust, but verify.”

Throughout my childhood, whenever I left the house, my parents said a simple phrase, whether I was going to school, going out with friends, or just going outside to play. They always said, “Remember who you are.” I’ve never forgotten it. A speech from them would have sounded like the Charlie Brown adult sound, “Waah Waah.” The brevity of their farewell had a far better impact.

I believe that if we turn down the cacophony of today’s oversaturated world, our words might carry greater weight. Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, X (formally known as Twitter), Snapchat, the 24/7 news cycle, and TV shows that require subtitles for anyone to understand all contribute to society’s noise and misunderstanding of one another. I may be a delusional dinosaur who wants less of what society continually craves, but if we tried, I’m convinced understanding, empathy, and sympathy might prevail.

We have the ultimate teacher in God’s Word. I’ll leave you with just two examples of brief and profound verses.

The first is the shortest English verse in Scripture. As Jesus approached the newly occupied grave of his dear friend Lazarus, dead just four days, John 11:35 says, “Jesus wept.” It powerfully conveys his love, compassion, empathy, and how he shares in our sorrows.

Then he demonstrated his power and dominion over death by saying, “Lazarus, come forth.” Out of the grave he came, back to life. This was a profound demonstration of resurrection.

The second example comes from 1 Thessalonians 5:16, the shortest verse in the original Greek: “Rejoice always.” The apostle Paul knew the sufferings of the church in Thessalonica since he had just been there ministering to them, but with this simple phrase, he exhorted them to keep their eyes on the ultimate prize.

I resolve to be more succinct in my speech, with the hope that its impact can be more clearly understood.

Author: Thomas F. Sleete

Thomas F. Sleete is a retired American History teacher and educational consultant with over 44 years of experience. That from which he derives the most enjoyment in this world is his interaction with, and love for, his grandchildren. The Lord guided and comforted him through the loss of his wife, and one way he seeks to glorify the name of Jesus at every opportunity is through his writing.

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