Any poet knows that understatement --- saying less in order to convey more --- is a marvelous tool in the expression of truth, particularly in expressing the inexpressible. Looking at the Grand Canyon, one might say that it's a "quite nice view," just to be silly, meaning it's actually an astounding view. You might tell someone you're a "bit under the weather" when they know you've late from the hospital. Well, you see what I mean --- it's a way of speaking that is measured, even graceful, and (in the hands of better writers than me) a powerful means of conveying truth.
I think of that Gospel writer who wrote simply "Jesus wept." We could miss it and think that he only wept for Lazarus who, as Africans so delicately say, is "late," but underneath these simple words lie the depth of God's sorrow over the brokenness of his Creation, the ravages of sin, and the curse of death --- a world gone wrong. We cannot and could not bear the inexpressible grief sin causes to God. We could have been treated to a sermon on the grief of God, with many analogies to attempt to demonstrate to us how deep and wide is this grief, but that's not what we get. Simply, Jesus wept.
Creation itself is also full of understatement. Walk through a Carolina pine forest and there is nothing breathtaking to take note of. Pines are neither the most beautiful nor graceful of trees. The colors of the forest are not striking, as there are no bright flowers here and there, just browns, greens, and the blue of sky up above the canopy. (Can you really call the scraggly tops of pines a crown, a canopy? That seems too majestic.) And yet, the subtlety of the forestscape is powerfully beautiful, the combination of colors soothing. Stop and listen, and if the wind is sufficiently stirred, and civilization blessedly far, you might hear the subtle language of the trees, their creaking, as if to say "I'm here. Take note." I used to think pines quite useless, good only for pulp mills. But I'll take a speaking pine over a mute hardwood these days. (If you've never heard a pine creak, then you've not slowed down enough to listen.) But I digress into personification! Everyone knows pines don't talk, right?
Contrast understatement with the overstated society we live in. If something can be said, it is said. There is no holding back. Whether it's talk shows, blogs, or emails, it's brash and agressive. And then in consumer culture we are constantly being marketed to. I'm sitting now in one of those chic (do people say "chic" anymore?) deli/coffeehouses, and I'm aware of muzak, a very hip jazz medley. Someone deliberated over that choice. Some suit got the big bucks to figure out how to reach me. I think it's supposed to make me feel I'm in a place where things are happening, where the noveau-hip reside. It's plain annoying, too loud and too sprightly for my melancholy. Let me enjoy my melancholic bent, please!
I'm bombarded with messages aimed at my wallet wherever I go nowadays. Perhaps it's a result of my having my own business at one time, but whenever I enter a retail store now I'm keenly aware of product placement, lifestyle messages, and consumption ambience (lighting plus music equals buy buy buy). It makes me a little crazy, and it makes me want to stay home. The internet is not much better. Amazon has tracked my buying habits, and so when I visit their web page and get the "Welcome Steve" (and I resent this as I am not their buddy and they do not know me) and a list of recommendations of things that I surely would be interested in buying given what I previously bought, I have to tune out the noise, the feedback of my own choices. Imagine that. Imagine walking in a brick and mortar store and clerks falling over themselves, calling me by my first name, and immediately pushing kiosks with recommended products where I can see them as I walk through, letting me sample this or that item. Ah, they know me. They know my tribe. They know what I need to validate me as a member of the tribe. There's no subtlety here. It's all in my face, all the time.
That's the kind of place in which we live, unfortunately. And yet, a walk outside, away from the billboards, city streets, and hawkers of comsumption is liberating. A walk in the woods reminds me that God's economy is diffrent than ours, that even small things like an ant and a leaf or a branchless, creaking pine matter. These not-so-grand, small, and common places of Creation are the real thing, like visual poetry, full of God's understatement: "I am here. Take note."