Shared Vocabulary

I am halfway through When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.

His writing supplies the reader with lesson after lesson, carefully and eloquently embedded in his narrative. In fact, you must read slowly or risk overlooking his wisdom.

One theme, so far, centers on the essentiality of vocabulary:

“I began to see all disciplines as creating a vocabulary, a set of tools for understanding human life in a particular way”.

“Our relationship was still deep in meaning, a shared and evolving vocabulary about what mattered”.

I am going to attempt to destruct and then apply these truths to a familiar context.

Disciplines create a vocabulary for understanding human life. Chemistry and biology provide us with vocabulary to understand structure and function at a molecular level. Their combined efforts birth the science of life and the vocabulary they introduce, allows us to converse the meaning of life. This is just one example; mathematics, religion, physics and more, provide foundational vocabulary. As an exercise, imagine a world absent of a discipline. How would this distort your conversations, your understanding? I find that removing one discipline from the equation is illustrative of a doomed play in Jenga.

…A shared and evolving vocabulary about what mattered. This is likely the most beautiful summary of a relationship that I have encountered. At the root of misunderstanding, different views, is a vocabulary not shared. If I reflect on a recent relationship, I have a deeper appreciation for Kalanithi and vocabulary.

He and I did not have a shared vocabulary. Because we did not have a shared vocabulary, our understandings diverged, the value we placed on experiences and emotions were not congruent and so our attempts at reaching a middle ground were explicitly doomed.

Where as he would say, Everything will be fine. God will find a way.  I believed, This is a struggle, this is not fine but God has given me the tools to find the way. On the surface, we envisioned a positive outcome. But how we reached this point was unequivocally different. Where he said fine, I said struggle.

When he said fine, he would also say prayertime, believe whereas I was saying, problem, strategy, solution. In our more heated interactions, I would describe him as consciously passive, he countered that I was, overly dramatic.

We did not have a shared vocabulary. We had nearly polar vocabulary, our vocabulary could not evolve, so we could not. So, just as with evolution, because we could not agree on the vocabulary necessary to adapt, we were removed.

Vocabulary is important, not merely because of our reliance on it, but for the fact that it births understanding, and I am no scientist, but it is the output of several iterations of biological and chemical functions, all founded upon physics, that differentiate us as human. The greatest philosophers, in concerning themselves with general and foundational questions laid incredible bedrock, posing super-human questions that birthed most of the vocabulary  on which we depend.





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