The Phantom Tollbooth and Redeeming the Power of Words
My dad calls me Bear. He and my mom came up with the nickname when I was a little girl. I slept hard, they tell me, like a hibernating cub.
I still sleep like it’s wintertime in the forest. Even now, when my parents see me early in the morning during a vacation or visit, they smile in that way only parents can, their faces bearing witness to a decades-long relationship with me.
“Hey, Bear. Want some coffee?”
“That would be great.”
“Here ya go. Your sleepy eyes look just like they did when you were two.”
As the eldest daughter of a word-loving father and homeschooling mother, I grew up surrounded by books. I remember once walking down the staircase with my nose in a book, carelessly risking a misplaced step or stubbed toe. Surely a fall would not be as calamitous as taking my eyes off the page for the 10-second trip to the first floor. The story I refused to set aside was The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, a children’s fantasy novel featuring a young, bored boy named Milo.A first step in caring will often have to be an individual one—a diversifying of social media feeds, an invitation to conversation, a reading of a book.
The Phantom Tollbooth’s masterful storytelling, visceral descriptions, and sensory language captivated me. Early in the story, Milo comes from home from school to find a large, strange package in his room. He discovers a tag affixed to the package that reads, “For Milo, who has plenty of time.”
Inside the box is a tollbooth, instructions, and a map. Milo doubts that anything enjoyable will come of what the tollbooth has to offer, but he dusts off his old toy automobile, slips a coin into the tollbooth, and selects “Dictionopolis” on the map.
Once Milo’s journey begins, he discovers a world in which life is anything but boring. Dictionopolis is a place where phrases, words, and even letters have tangible meaning. The Minister of Meaning and Duke of Definition explain the way their world works to Milo, telling him that “Dictionopolis is the place where all the words in the world come from. They’re grown right here in our orchards.”
Milo buys a sweet, juicy A that tastes like an apple at a market, meets a young boy with only 58% of a body (because, you see, most families have 2.58 children), and befriends a “watchdog” with alarm clocks attached to him. As Milo explores his surroundings and is swept up in a sometimes frightening, but mostly just surreal, adventure, he experiences life in an entirely new way. Everyday interactions are layered with meaning and deeply experiential—a request for “a light meal” results in bright beams leaping from the plate, mindless wandering gets Milo lost in the grayscale Doldrums.
“There’s so much to learn…”
“Yes, that’s true,” admitted Rhyme; “but it’s not just learning things that’s important. It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters.”
The song of my childhood kept its time to the the click of the keyboard as I typed my dad’s dissertation data while he dictated it to me. My hands found the rhythm as they ran over his book stacks, a melody called forth from the low hum of his voice as over the phone he counseled church members who were grappling with what the Bible really said.
As a young Christian in his late twenties, my dad was that guy in his Sunday School class—the one who asked the teachers myriad questions that they weren’t equipped to answer. He attended seminary and majored in Hebrew, later earning a doctorate in higher education while working for a Bible college. He became a father to three daughters, each given a nickname.
All of this, from the illustrative nicknaming to the diligent study and communication of the Scriptures, built within me a foundational understanding for the way the world works. Words were a valuable currency in our home, so I believed they were a valuable currency everywhere else, too. The conversations in my family were often funny, light, even silly—so it wasn’t that words were to be only used seriously. It was that they were taken seriously for their power to communicate, their ability to create.
This philosophy of language summed up both by my parents’ way of navigating the world and by a little phrase my dad often said during my childhood.
“Words have meaning, Bear,” he’d insist. “Words have meaning!”
Well, of course they do, I’d think. That’s why you’ve spent your life communicating the Scriptures. It’s why you filled our home with books. It’s why my nickname is Bear.
Just like The Phantom Tollbooth’s Milo, I can be prone to feeling that life is a bit boring, a bit flat and repetitive. My routines become rote. Maybe yours do too—the habit of 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, little boxes on calendars filled with commitments—all of it can become, to be honest, quite dull. Even now, as an adult, I find myself wishing for an adventure like Milo’s, an experience that will offer me the texture I long for in life and take me on a journey through layers of meaning and substance. But the true gift of a book like The Phantom Tollbooth, and, I suppose, of a childhood like mine, and the world in which we live, is that the texture and substance are right here for the taking, packaged in the words of our everyday lives—words that have meaning.
In an era where facts are continually up for debate and accusations of “Fake News!” chip away at our equilibrium, the value of words that mean something cannot be overstated. Parents know how important words are: we teach our children to tell the truth, that no means no, that keeping their word matters. The Bible tells us that our mouths speak from the overflow of our hearts—that the words we say testify to the very core of our beings.
“Why don’t they live in Illusions?” suggested the Humbug. “It’s much prettier.”
“Many of them do,” he answered… “but it’s just as bad to live in a place where what you do see isn’t there as it is to live in one where what you don’t see is.”
Information splashes all around us. If we are not careful, we may easily find ourselves stranded in a place eerily reminiscent of The Phantom Tollbooth’s Island of Conclusions (to which one jumps, of course). We feel strangely displeased by and smug about the conclusions we have drawn, yet are unwilling to do anything about them. The dialogue, the conversations, the introspection that deeper thought or study would require just sounds too hard. So we corroborate our preferred versions of reality through cherry-picked news coverage and op-eds, narrowly curated social media feeds and friend groups.
“You can swim all day in the Sea of Knowledge and still come out completely dry. Most people do.”
Despite being a children’s book, The Phantom Tollbooth encourages even adults to be sober-minded about the impact our words can have. It echoes Scripture’s call to remember that words aptly spoken are like apples of gold in settings of silver. Without ever mentioning God, The Phantom Tollbooth challenges me to consider the way I speak of Him, of those He created, of the world I’m eager for Him to redeem in full. My words can either bear witness to the truth and beauty of the kingdom to come, shining light on how things truly are and what that means, or they can perpetuate the darkness.
Christians should be the first ones to say that words matter—we are people of the Book and those who were saved by the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. The words we use each day serve as the building blocks of ideas, beliefs, and stories. They form us and our cultures. And yet, we so often find ourselves lured by words that tickle our ears—in advertising, on our preferred news network, sometimes, tragically, in our churches—by appealing to what we already think and failing to challenge us to see beyond ourselves.
We too often say everything and communicate nothing, ending each Facebook comment with an exclamation mark though we’ve likely said very little worth emphasizing. It’s not the nature of the medium that’s the problem, it’s our habit of speaking in such a way that we are only concerned about making a case, or being right or authoritative. When our idea of how words find their meaning occurs in isolation rather than conversation, we forego the opportunity to speak in such a way that stewards the deep meaning of words by offering them as an invitation to communal collaboration.
“Today people use as many words as they can and think themselves very wise for doing so. For always remember that while it is wrong to use too few, it is often far worse to use too many.”
It would be easy, to be sure, to consider the weight of words and shy away from them, becoming silent on important issues and only speaking of the shallow. That’s the thing with words, though. What we spend our words on often becomes most important—inside us, in our conversations, within the culture we are always creating. Maybe that’s part of why we can feel so bored and dissatisfied with life, despite having more access to information than any generation prior. Do we just skim the surface of too many issues, gravitating toward the easier things, because it seems simpler, less strenuous? Maybe the risk of nuance and reflection would pay off in a richer, if more complex, life.
“You weren’t thinking and you weren’t paying attention either. People who don’t pay attention often get stuck in the Doldrums.”
I’ve wondered before if I still sleep so hard as an adult because my childhood hibernation tendencies morphed into a word that identified me. It’s an imaginative possibility that I continue to let myself entertain as I speak to my own children, as I write about what I see in the world, as I converse with my husband and with friends.
Chris Tiegreen wondered similarly in his book Creative Prayer: Speaking the Language of God’s Heart. He writes of scientist Masuro Emoto, who has performed numerous experiments to determine the effects of words on, of all things, water:
“Water samples exposed to expressions like ‘thank you,’ ‘I love you,’ and ‘peace’ are separated from samples exposed to expressions like ‘you’re worthless,’ ‘I hate you,’ and ‘war.’ When the samples placed in an environment of positive words are then frozen, their microscopic crystals show beautiful, intricate patterns and shapes. When frozen samples from the negative environment are examined, their crystals are sludgy and shapeless.
“Beautiful words create beautiful nature,” Dr. Emoto says. “Ugly words create ugly nature.”
“In light of the Bible’s emphasis on the power of language—from the ‘let there be light of God to the ‘bless and curse not’ of people—it isn’t hard to find Christian principles in [Dr. Emoto’s] research, is it? God has written into creation a cause-and-effect dynamic with the spoken word.”
What if we are creating meaning with our words, testifying to truth or falsity at all times? What if the way we string our words together is becoming a thread of story, weaving a narrative that’s bigger than us, outside of us? What if the boredom we feel, or the uncertainty of our place or purpose, can be at least partially assuaged by thinking about words about differently, both the sentences we breathe in and those we breathe out?
Perhaps, strange as it may sound, the weightiness we may feel about the world can be alleviated by ascribing a bit more weight to our words. Words have the power to give life, share truth, and create beauty, all ours to discover if we’ll only try.
This effort in taking words more seriously is necessarily a communal effort, an experiment that is dead from the start if we attempt to go at it alone. Communication requires a communicator and one receiving the communication; words are understood and defined and articulated in the context of community. The question “what do you mean by that?” may feel like a vulnerable or uncomfortable question at first, but the potential for common understanding, for true communication, for a thread woven into a tapestry that will turn out beautiful is so much higher than when we throw words around, no care for common understanding.
It’s messy, in-this-together work, this endeavor to be a People who believe that words have meaning, that using them well matters, that the truth actually can be discovered and spoken. But that first step in caring will often have to be an individual one—a diversifying of social media feeds, an invitation to conversation, a reading of a book. Those beginnings though, they lend themselves to looking up and finding others alongside us on similar journeys, our boredom or fear or sense of displacement reduced as we realize we have partners in discovering meaning and understanding. It will not go perfectly; we will misspeak and confuse one another and have to try again, have to arrange our words a bit differently and see if that works this time. The risk of the stubbed toe or missed step as we descend the staircase toward meaning together, eyes affixed to the truth, shrinks in our perception of its danger when we’re walking together.
“That’s just what I mean,” explained Milo.… “Many of the things I’m supposed to know seem so useless that I can’t see the purpose in learning them at all.”
“You may not see it now,” said the Princess of Pure Reason, looking knowingly at Milo’s puzzled face, “but whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else, if even in the tiniest way.”
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