First Person: Words, Words, Words

By Harry Weininger
Friday January 05, 2007

It was a crushingly hot summer day in Chicago. The kind of day that Chicagoans believe only they are privy to. The kind of day where the sidewalks exhale hot air, steps are uncertain, thinking woozy.  

This oppressive heat had been blanketing the city for days. The city, not living up to its nickname, offered up not even the slightest breeze. Air conditioning was still a rarity, and the dorm provided no relief from the stifling heat. I was dispirited because I couldn’t do anything useful, least of all study. But it was examination time at the university and I had papers due. 

Visiting friends was the only activity I could think of, and so I ambled down 57th Street and into my friend Mort’s apartment. (Those days you could still leave your door open—but that’s another story.) Mort was a few years older, had his Ph.D. and was now in law school.  

The room I entered was just as hot as the outside. Mort was working at a large table, drenched in sweat, a white shirt hanging behind him on a chair. “Mort, what are you doing?” I asked. “I’m working on a paper,” he said. I was stunned. “But,” I protested, “it’s so hot!” Glancing up from his paper, Mort said, “so what?”  

I was dumbfounded. In a flash, my worldview toppled. It hadn’t occurred to me that it could be that hot and one could still think, still work, still be useful. And yet it was so obvious. It was hot, yes. But the work could be done. One could be uncomfortable—even in the extreme—and still work. Why be hung up by the heat? So what?  

These two words energized me and continue to resonate today, more than half a century later. Others, of course, have used the phrase, sometimes in a different context. Jesse Choper, former Dean of Boalt Hall, marshalled so what? skillfully as he challenged students in and out of class to think about the foundation of their arguments. I cannot count the times I ask so what? when I encounter an obstacle or an uncomfortable situation. And invariably the obstacle melts away, or becomes manageable. The problem is there to be dealt with, not to be celebrated. 

All of us have likely had similar experiences, where a single word or phrase—spoken or written by friend or stranger—has had a dramatic and lasting impact on us. What is the source of that power? Is it the inherent truthfulness of the words? The authority or charisma of the person making the utterance? Our relationship with that person? Our need at the time for counsel, and our openness to receiving such wisdom?  

Another such occasion came when my cousin, Ben, family patriarch and eminent psychiatrist in Santa Barbara, saw me distressed after a relationship ended. He said, don’t you know that you only keep that which you set free? This saying has helped me to deal with loss. Its power has not diminished over the decades.  

Whether spoken by a person, read in a book, heard in a movie—or even carved in stone—a phrase that’s rebuffed as trivial by one person can provide great illumination to another. “Don’t take counsel from your fears” was inscribed on a building at the University of Chicago; recalling that quotation has been valuable in stressful situations and often guided me to take effective action.  

I’m fortunate to have had a number of such experiences that triggered insightful and productive changes. Meaningful words may come from ancient wisdom or be constructed on the spot. I’m no longer surprised when I encounter words that trigger deep changes in the flow of life. I cherish these words—and those messengers who, intentionally or not, pass them on.