Photo by Soner Eker
    The following is an excerpt from my book-in-progress, “Saying Nothing”, and describes a core part of the message within it: that we have become so lost in the power of words (as ideas) that we can no longer recognise when they cause us harm. That our obsession with language leads us to impose its uncertain structure upon the world, which in turn leads to much of the fragmentation we see around us in the modern world…
Let me know what you think in the comments section below!
(~7 Minute Read)
    What’s in a word? Identity, Property, Sex, Death, Love, Drugs, Pain, Pleasure, Control, Power, God, Science, Good, Bad… All these things shape our entire lives, they make or break entire existences and define our dying moments. But what do they all have in common? They are ideas— they are perspectives of reality made possible through the complex coordination of labels and emotions, and hence they each find their power through language.
    Our words define us, our words secure us, they trap us and delude us, they liberate us and they tie us up in knots. We need them in order to exist in society, and languages have evolved and flourished into what they are for good reason, but they are also our prisons. From the moment you were born you have been given words as a means to label, communicate, and understand the world around you, but that is precisely the point: our languages are how we understand the world.
    While we form the foundation of our understanding of the world through our bodily senses, we are unable to form complex, structured thoughts without words; we cannot reflect on who we are, or why that happened, without relying on the tool of language to provide the necessary ‘solidity’ with which to do so. Words (and the system of language they exist within) provide us with the necessary structure for us to hold experiences outside of time, and compare or reflect upon them; we do not need words to shit, eat or screw, but we do need words to give permanence to things beyond our immediate experiences.
    Countless lives have come and gone without giving the role or power of language a second thought. We use it every day and, importantly, not just for talking but for thinking. Non-stop, around the clock, our minds are wrapping the world in words. It seems almost unavoidable, completely natural, as though we were always meant to use language and the world was meant to be divided up into the labels we’ve settled upon. Yet look at what I did there— your mind just breezed past the word ‘meant’ as the most natural thing, but what does it really mean? Have you ever seen something that was ‘meant’ to be or do anything? A glass, we’re told, is meant to hold liquid, it was intended to; but does meaning or intention exist outside language, outside our mutually accepted mental structure? I’ve certainly never seen it. “Some things are meant to be”, but only through the lens of our human, all too human, meaning-seeking eyes. Meaning is something we look for, but that doesn’t mean it exists outside language, outside our collective thoughts (read more about this idea in the earlier post, Meaning is a Word).
    Meaning, it turns out, is but one example among many of words – ideas, concepts, accepted labels – that find everyday use in our vocabularies yet do not necessarily ‘match up’ with any concrete, tangible reality. This in itself poses no serious catastrophe, for language serves much like a map, and while both are ultimately just ideas, they allow us to safely and efficiently navigate. As with a map, however, danger arises from the temptation to mistake the model for the experience. Language enables ideas and communication, and so enables us to find the quickest paths to our desires, but unlike a handheld map, our linguistic models are a part of our experience, as if the map was etched onto our retinas. Because of this, it becomes far too easy to mistake the lines for the road; to ‘walk the ink and not the stone’.
    That is what we have lost. Our shiny new toy of language, that led us out of caves and into the comfort of our fancy modern homes through our access to complex thought and social coordination, has distracted us so much that nowadays we can’t even handle a moment’s silence. Our maps have become so intricate that we cannot even see our own reflections in the mirror— instead, looking back at us is the disfigured Frankenstein of other’s judgements and societal standards; a too-fat, too-skinny, too-young, too-wrinkly, too-shy, too-confident ‘person’, instead of the hot mess of wonky, wild, miraculous flesh that has given us warmth and place in this maelstrom of Being. The narrow perspective of the world pushed on us by our rational models leads us to see enemies where there are none, to make strangers out of family, to divide one bountiful Earth into zones of ownership at the cost of the whole, to drain all the beauty out of the present and cast it into the future… The costs of language are both emotional and intellectual— learning to see it for what it truly is, is an essential step for liberating the mind from both the cycles of emotional harm as well as destructive reasoning.
    It could be described in simpler terms as the choice between speaking or listening. When our mind talks, desperately trying to fill that endless silence with the comfort of ideas and understanding, we can no longer properly hear what the universe is ‘saying’. The more we get lost in our minds, the more we obsess over our human language, the weaker our comprehension of reality’s words becomes. The sounds and smells of fresh rain become smothered by the 10,000 people insisting “it’s a miserable day” just because they got a little wet; we find ourselves resenting another human being going through just as much as we are, simply because of how we interpreted something they said; we fixate so strongly on how an emotional event fits into our world-view, that we bend ourselves out of shape trying to match our ideals with the torrent of reality…
    The biggest obstacle I face in making this case, is that in this day and age so many of us now are so stuck in our heads that there hardly seems any alternative. No one has any way of realising the damage our obsession with ideas is causing, because they have practically no experience to the contrary. While activities like meditation, or being lost in an art or passion, all come close to reminding us what raw experience is like without our attempts to define and categorise them, these moments have no place in our rational world-views— we have little to no space or understanding of why unknowing is important, what it is, how it works… Not to mention that our modern age seems to be giving less and less time to artistic, “undistracted” pursuits, and aggressively monopolising upon the attention economy to the point that listening is becoming unfashionable. What the human-made world constantly presents us with is the belief that really we are faced only with knowledge, or ignorance; sense, or reason; ideas, or instinct. When in between and intertwined within all of these, is our true human brilliance, our greatest gift.
    Knowledge and intelligence are what enable us to create smartphones, launch rockets, manipulate nature in our favour, to pursue lucrative careers, outsmart our bad habits in order to be happy, etc.— and the only alternatives are supposedly creativity, common sense, or inactivity. But you will simply have to stretch your mind a little for me, until you’ve come to an informed judgement: perhaps there are other kinds of knowledge, perhaps there are different ways to divide our relationship with reality, perhaps the view of the world that you’ve been sold (or chosen to buy?) is not the only valid one.
    In coming posts, I will be exploring the implications of the idea that our obsession with our verbal worlds creates a tension with the real one. My previous post on the self – “You Are A Word” – is a good place to start if you haven’t read it already.
    Do you agree with the ideas discussed? Have we become lost in words, tied up by ideas? Or did we perhaps “discover” language, as a higher means of comprehending the world? I’m keen to hear your thoughts and feedback, so I know whether my book has any hope– please get involved in the comments section below!


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2 years ago

Nice King