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.





What my father taught me about love


I came to understand this week that my relationship with my father has encouraged me to have high expectations in my romantic relationships. I’m not suffering from a prolonged Electra complex. I do not want to marry my father. I also would not want the husband my father is to my mother. I did not see love or learn of its magic, by the way my father was a husband to my mother. Observing my mother as a wife, I saw a woman that did not feel like she was loved.

I learned about love not because my father spoke with me affectionately. The first time my father told me he loved me was in 2015; I was 28.  But I did not spend 3 decades waiting for my father to declare his love for me. I had long concluded that my quiet, strange, mathematician father would probably never utter those words; however, I did not feel inadequate and I did not feel unloved.

It was through my dad’s quiet smile and a reassuring tap on my head when I was disciplined by my mother that I learned of his ability to love deeply. When he would wake me at 4am (per my request–He and my mother would do this) so I could finish studying for an exam. Or the fact that he would drive me to school on days I had math tests because he knew I was an anxious soul. His non-disappointment with a (rare) B+ and his silent celebration of an A+.

Though I kept much of my darkness from my father, he believes that I confide in him, which I do, however selectively. My father is not one to avoid conversation even though he can present as someone who does not like conversing.

My father has always been available to me. I have never had to worry about whether it’s the right time to call or how my efforts at communication might be perceived. Confused yet sympathetic toward my insomnia, my dad has always encouraged me to call him when my body refuses to engage in little deaths, “If you can’t sleep or you just want to talk, call me. Don’t worry about the time. I am retired. I have all day to sleep”.

My father has been present in my moments, big or small. On my first day of undergrad, my father called me to wish me good luck. Despite his fear of flight, he traveled to New York from Ghana to help me prepare for Columbia. On the first day of grad school, again, he wished me good luck. Mostly recently, my first day of my new job, my father called to wish me good luck, and again to inquire about my first day. I can rely on my father.

My father is patient with me. He’s aware of ‘my ways’ and does not make me apologize for who I am ( or am not). He knows I am quietly stubborn.

Father’s are important for many reasons (as are mothers). Your father is the first man in your life. In my experience at least, my relationship with my father helped shape my interpretation of what a strong, romantic relationship might look like.

Through my relationship with my father, I learned not to take anyone for granted. I learned not to make the assumptions that are the pitfalls of relationships–that someone is always going to be there.

My father has made me feel valued and important, even on days we do not communicate. I know I am on his heart and in his mind, and I do not waiver in my belief of this. I suppose, in a sense, one could think it’s unreasonable to expect to have this bond with another man. But I disagree. I think it is possible and I think it’s important to have in all adult relationships, platonic ones included.

My father does not love me because I am of him or  half him. If love were only the result of the collision of egg and sperm, I reckon, it would be a much different world. As humans, we have the power of choosing how to love.



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