Smoke without fire

Light is Right Joe Campbell

Light is Right Joe Campbell

I  think I’ve been hugged and told “love you” more often in the last 10 to 20 years than ever before. A surge of these verbal and gestural flourishes has swept the most recent generations and threatens mine. Whenever they meet or depart from family, friends, acquaintances and even near strangers, the affected are liable to give forth.

I’m not sure why they do it. I’m sure of one thing, however. Although verbal and gestural displays are impressive, if separated from the actions they ought to signify, they’re like smoke without fire.

They remind me of the opening and closing of formal business letters: on the one hand, Dear So and So, Sir or Madam; on the other, Yours truly, faithfully or sincerely. They also bring to mind how we’re supposed to refer to so-called dignitaries. When we speak with or about them, the expected titles range from Your, His or Her Excellency for governors-general to Your, His or Her Worship for mere mayors.

Do writers of business letters really hold the recipients dear? Do they actually consider them truly, faithfully or sincerely theirs? Does anyone consider governors-general excellent by virtue of their appointment or mayors worthy of worship by virtue of anything? Come to think of it, do we really mean it when we address judges, alias lawyers, as Your Honour and refer to senators and cabinet ministers, alias politicians, as The Honourable? Are we ourselves honourable when we address Prime Ministers, alias political leaders, as the Right Honourable? I very much doubt it. As these formulaic effusions rarely, if ever, mean what they say, they are the epitome of smoke without fire.

So is the arch use of epithets like darling and luvvie among theatrical people, not to mention their penchant for social kissing. So, in fact, are virtually all social and ceremonial kisses. Until I looked into the matter, I assumed that handshakes and bows were the most common gestural greetings. They’re not, apparently. Much to my surprise, cheek kissing more commonly suggests recognition, friendship, affection, congratulations, comfort, respect, reverence, and such.

In some countries, participants may exchange single kisses. In others, two, three and even four on alternate cheeks are customary. As you might imagine, the ritual requires skillful maneuvering.

Although I have difficulty believing it, I’ve read that cheek kisses are displacing handshakes as customary greetings in American business and social circles. If so, Americans had better prepare for frequent dental skirmishes and nasal battles.

Although not much safer, brushing cheeks and kissing the air nearby might be more appealing. Described as good displays of social decorum, air kisses show affection without actually giving it, according to one of my informants.

In other words, they’re a pretense of kissing and, apparently, of affection as well. But show has several meanings, ranging from what we describe in “nothing but mere show” to what we command in “Don’t tell me. Show me.”

The command recognizes that actions speak louder, and more genuinely, than gestures and words. It embodies the Biblical approach, as in “If you love me, keep my commandments” or “Not everyone who says Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom, but he who does the will of my father.” The Biblical approach focuses on acts, not tokens, fire not smoke.

I don’t remember my parents saying that they loved me, nor do I recall admitting that I loved them. What’s more, we rarely hugged. I don’t think we consciously rejected these verbal and gestural clichés. I suspect, rather, that indulging in them didn’t occur to us.

I never felt unloved. Without reflecting on it, I knew my parents wanted the best for me and acted to provide it. Although I often acted up, not to mention out, I suspect that, also without reflecting on it, they didn’t consider my actions so lacking in affection that they needed to ask whether I loved them.

If we had reflected, we might have discovered that without actions, gestures and words are dead. We might have concluded that, like the Biblical approach, ours focused on fire, not smoke.

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