A picture is worth a thousand words. You’ve heard this phrase before. And you probably took it to mean something along the lines of “a picture can show us something better than words can tell us.”
If you’re an author, you probably expect me to launch into a lecture about “show, don’t tell.” We’ve all heard that criticism about our work before. Spoiler alert: that’s not where I’m going.
It’s a great phrase though, right? If left to our own devices, we could look at a painting and interpret what the artist wanted to convey. We don’t need a typed explanation. (Okay, maybe with some art we do—I’ve seen some pretty strange paintings hanging in museums.)
Leonardo da Vinci had a go at using the phrase. In his estimation, a poet would be “overcome by sleep and hunger before [being able to] describe with words what a painter is able to [depict] in an instant.”
This phrase tells us to use our eyes to get our message, not words on a page. It exhorts us to use our senses. To think for ourselves.
But maybe—sometimes—our interpretation is wrong.
Look at this picture. What thousand words does it say to you?
Forget a thousand. Pick five. What five words come to your mind when you see this man? Be honest. And if you know who he is, keep your lip buttoned. Don’t ruin the surprise for the rest of us.
Got your five words? OK. Jot them down. We’ll come back to them later.
Let’s take a look at a different picture. Come up with five words to describe these guys. Take ten if you need to, since there are two of them.
I would venture to guess your words this time around were friendlier, more positive. If you’re my age or older, you probably recognize this pair. The tall one is Art Garfunkle. Fuzzy hair. Baby-faced smile. Nerdy name. Not the same vibe as the first guy.
The short one is Paul Simon. He has made his living as a musician for the past six decades. He won sixteen Grammy Awards, he is a two-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Time selected him as one of the “100 People Who Shaped the World,” and Rolling Stone ranked him eighth in their list of “The 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time.” Very respectable.
And he wrote The Sound of Silence.
The song is gorgeous. It’s incredible. It’s poetry.
Garfunkle described the song’s meaning this way: “the inability of people to communicate with each other . . . so what you see around you are people unable to love each other.”
In case you’ve lived your life under a rock and have never heard this song, here is a link to a live performance in 1981. Pay attention to the lyrics.
The inability of people to love each other is a failing of the greatest magnitude. In Mark 12, when a teacher of the law asked Jesus which of the commandments was most important, Jesus answered, “The most important one is this. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’”
But he wasn’t finished. He also said, “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
Remember the five words I asked you to write? Jesus’ five words may have been, “Love God. Love your neighbor.” Jesus didn’t qualify the neighbor part by telling us what they should look like.
I’m afraid sometimes the five words I come up with are not words that lead me to love my neighbor. Sometimes my words are racist or criminal. Thug or terrorist. Sometimes words like stupid.
And I could nest all those words under a category titled “Different.” From me.
Society teaches us to fear different. But that’s not what Jesus modeled. He really upset some folks by hanging out with the wrong kind of people. Different. He talked to the wrong kind of people. Different. He ate with, worked with, loved the wrong kind of people. Different.
I want to follow Jesus. I want to live my life the way he did. I want to love the way he did. I want to be different. So, I have to see my pictures with different eyes. Think different words. Be open to the surprises I will find when I do.
Our friend at the beginning of the post? His name is David Draiman. He was a surprise for me. He is the vocalist for the metal band Disturbed. The band has debuted five albums at number one on the Billboard 200. They have sold over 17 million records worldwide. If you Google the band or search for their music videos on YouTube, you’ll see exactly what you were expecting. Metal music. Loud singing, almost screaming. Bad language. Not exactly my cup of tea.
But what might surprise you is David grew up in a Jewish household. He went to Jewish schools where he expected to receive rabbinic ordination. He trained as a hazzan, or precentor, taught in the vocal arts to lead the congregation in soulful prayer. He started pre-law studies at Loyola University. He graduated from the University with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Government, Philosophy, and Business Administration.
Were any of those words in your list of five? Mine either.
Let’s challenge each other to move past our initial, knee-jerk reaction to the pictures we see and dig deeper. Maybe we find some surprises. Maybe there are more things we share than we expected.
Like Paul Simon and David Draiman. Paul Simon wrote The Sound of Silence in 1964. It hit number one on the Billboard charts and was added to the National Recording Registry in 2012 for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.” Fifty years later, David Draiman sang a cover of it with his metal band. It hit number one again. Listeners have streamed the song over 54 million times, and viewers have watched the music video on YouTube over 500 million times. (I’m pretty sure I’m responsible for at least 20, maybe 30 of those views.)
Looking at those two pictures, we would never in a million years believe those two men had anything in common. Nor would we expect the cover of the song to be something just as powerful and emotional from Disturbed as the original from Simon and Garfunkle. We would’ve been wrong.
So, go forth and be different. Be curious. Dig a little deeper.
And sit back and enjoy the precision, beauty, and power of this man’s voice.