By Tim Hayes

When someone poses the question, “What’s the matter?” it most often gets misinterpreted.  The question does not mean, “What’s the problem?”  The literal definition equates to “What’s the situation?”

That’s what makes this particular question so crucial, so vexing, and so difficult to answer today.  What, exactly, is the situation?  What, precisely, is the matter?  The question does not assume the presence of problems or trouble, necessarily.  It’s an attempt to figure out a new, and radically altered, reality.

Those of you old enough to recall the 1980s TV show “St. Elsewhere” may understand what I’m driving at here.  For six seasons, viewers followed the funny, sad, dramatic events affecting the staff of an old, disrespected Boston teaching hospital.  Not until the final five minutes of the finale, however, did viewers learn the truth – the whole series occurred inside the mind of a young boy with autism, who liked to stare at a snow globe with a model of a hospital inside the glass.

His father – seen for six years as the chief medical officer of the hospital – was, in fact, a lower-middle class factory worker and a widower, whose wife went out to buy ice cream one evening and never came home, having been killed in an auto accident.  That cataclysmic shift in that family’s dynamic helped push the boy further into emotional hiding.  Imagining what happened inside that miniature snow globe hospital was how he handled his new reality.

But for the millions of viewers who loved that show, what did this jarring and unanticipated resetting of a basic reality, of the very fundamental premise, of the foundational environment in which the life of people in this program rested mean?  A new reality, delivered at the very end of the story, no less.  I have never forgotten the emotional jolt received that evening, sitting in front of the set.  And that was just a fleeting, superficial TV show.

A lot of people felt that same jolt earlier this week.  What’s the matter, indeed.  Our situation has changed.

And I blame words.  As a professional writer, on one hand it pains me to admit this, even though at the same time, on the other hand, I saw it coming.  When you’re a star, you can do anything.  Basket of deplorables.  He wants a puppet in the White House.  Such a nasty woman.

Even with some inspirational, aspirational language inserted during the big “set pieces” of the campaign, the level of discourse and dialogue sounded like it consistently descended more into disdain and diatribe.  And now we face a new reality, driven and produced by (or is it despite of?) those words.

This essay has never taken political sides, and still won’t.  Never.  The point here, instead, is to express the hope that now, as our new reality prepares to take the reins of government, the level and spirit of rhetoric can rise to the power, responsibility, respect, and basic decency of the office.  And, more important, that the actions taken and pursued match that higher standard of integrity, collaboration, and optimism.

Whoever said, “Sticks and stone may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” must have been an utter moron.  Words can hurt.  Words can injure.  Words can create fear and anxiety.  They already have.

But words can also heal.  Words can reassure.  Words can bridge a divide – even one as seemingly wide as we have today.  Words can change the world.  It depends which ones we hear, internalize, and act upon.

So, you ask, what’s the matter?  What’s the situation?  The situation is that we’re all finding our footing within a new reality.  It doesn’t have to be one where people feel either extreme — threatened or boastful, fearful or dominant, hopeless or classless.  There’s always a middle ground, one that can occasionally lead to higher ground.  Let’s pray that turns out to be the case.

Maybe the question isn’t: What’s the matter?  Maybe the question should really be: What matters?  And here’s the only answer the people of a great nation like ours can give: Words matter.  Let’s use them wisely, carefully, and constructively, moving forward together.

Copyright 2016 Timothy P. Hayes