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.





The Trouble with Words (Part III)


The trouble with words is that they have meaning and consequence. Joel Osteen, in the ‘Power of I Am’ discusses the power of what we say and the words we choose. He talks about what God brought to fruition by speaking, “Let there be light” -and there it was. Osteen says that we have this same power and I find myself understanding him today.

Words have a ying yang element. We can use our words to speak beauty into existence, or we can use our words to summon pain and evil. Words matter. With this power literally at the tip of our tongues, we make many mistakes.

Have you ever responded to a text message, been reminded of your words at a later time but then you have absolutely no recollection? You scroll back and there it is; your words, your craft. Did I really say that? Yes, you did. Did I really mean that? Maybe. Is that what I wanted to say? I’m not sure now.

True; the demands around us are too great to workshop every sentence. But are the demands so great that we cannot be more conscious and careful?

Ephesians 4:29 : Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your moths, but only what is  helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

Ephesians Chapter 4 is not really about how we speak to each other – not directly anyway. Rather, it’s about unity and maturity. It calls on us to be humble (4:2), make every effort to keep unity (4:3) and promises that by speaking truth in love, we will grow to become in every aspect the mature body of Christ (4:15).

Our words are grammatical structures that build, rebuild, or destroy with each utterance. With our words, we can bring each other up, or we can assure our downfall. I think its important to understand we can’t separate ourselves from our actions. The relationship   between who we are and what is we say is direct. Put differently, with my words, I cannot raise you without also elevating myself; I cannot demote you without lowering myself.

If you read, even glance at texts (readings) from centuries past, possibly even earlier, there is a precision to language that I feel is becoming rare. That precision, I am thinking, is a reflection of an acute appreciation for language and it’s power.

I was in a situation early this morning where I wished the person speaking to me could see the damage they were causing. I wished that they could see how their words unraveled me. I also wished that I had not given them the power to do so. I had been courageous enough, at their request, to show vulnerability and so I did. But in doing so, I am empowered them, and because of their words,  I am questioning whether I want to share that level of vulnerability with anyone ever again.