Words have meaning and names have power.
The universe began with a word, you know.
But which came first: the word or the thought behind the word?
You can’t create language without thought … and you can’t conceive a thought without language.
So which created the other and thus, created the universe?
Lorien in Babylon 5: Whatever Happened to Mr. Garibaldi?
Words communicate, words are knowledge, words are information, words give solace. Words are useless, words are limiting, words are inadequate, words are misunderstood, words create fear, words create differences. Words are just symbols. Why use one word when 100 will do. Words are an essential part of communication and form just one element of the interaction we have with others.
To explain to you, the reader, I have to use words. How does one describe the experiences of life in mere words to another when they will invariably have built a different dictionary and vocabulary in their head to the one I have in mine?
As an avid science fiction fan, I read many books and watch many films including Star Wars, Babylon 5 and Star Trek. For those that have not seen Star Trek, there is a character called Spock. He is from the planet called Vulcan and is half human, half Vulcan, his mother being human. Vulcan’s are a long lived race who strive to be emotionless and are able to practice what is commonly known as mind melds. A mind meld is somewhat similar to telepathy but uses several of the meridian pressure points on the face.
There is a scene in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home which illustrates some of what I am trying to explain. Ideally, the scene should be viewed within the context of the first four films to get the full benefit from the humour and meaning, but I feel it is worth including here to provide a useful anecdote. For those who have not seen the films I shall set the context.
At the end of the second film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Spock dies from radiation exposure to save his comrades from certain death by preventing an explosion. Just before Spock enters the chamber he downloads his Soul to Dr McCoy using a mind meld. Dr McCoy is initially unaware of this. After Spock’s funeral the coffin is sent to the Planet Genesis. The course of the third film Star Trek III: The Search for Spock follows the crew’s attempt to find their ship mate. At the end of this film they find him and return with him to Vulcan so a ceremony can be performed to reunite body and Soul. Several weeks pass to allow Spock to recuperate from the ordeal.
In The Voyage Home the team travel back to Earth aboard a Klingon spaceship. McCoy is enquiring about Spock’s experience of death and his subsequent rebirth. To illustrate, what follows is a transcript of that scene:
McCoy: Hi . . . . . Busy?
Spock: Uhura is busy. I am monitoring.
McCoy: mmm . . . . . Well, I just wanted to say it sure is nice to have your character back in your head and not mine. . . . . What I mean is, I may have carried your Soul but I sure couldn’t fill your shoes.
Spock: My shoes?
McCoy: Forget it . . . . . Perhaps we could cover a little philosophical ground. Life, death, life. Things of that nature.
Spock: I did not have time on Vulcan to review the philosophical disciplines.
McCoy: Come on Spock, it’s me, McCoy. You really have gone where no man’s gone before. Can’t you tell me what it felt like.
Spock: It would be impossible to discuss the subject without a common frame of reference.
McCoy: You’re joking!
Spock: A joke is a story with a humorous climax.
McCoy: You mean I have to die to discuss your insights on death?
Spock: Forgive me Doctor, I am receiving a number of distress calls.
McCoy: I don’t doubt it.
Of course, just reading it here it lacks the visual humour so evident in their portrayal but does give a flavour of what I am trying to articulate. (see the film)
This highlights just how words are a real impediment when describing concepts, esoteric or otherwise, to another person when neither of you have a common frame of reference. They will have built their dictionary over their lifetime of experience.
When using words we choose them carefully having built considerable experience behind them. We understand what we mean by a word and we will invariably use that word in the context that we consider is correct. Someone else however, due to a different experiences, background and education, will use the same word in a completely different context and from their understanding of that word. This is where communication fails and misunderstandings occur.
Religion and politics are the two most hotly debated areas in the world, and it is in these areas where most misunderstandings originate. This is not surprising since most religious books are perceived to be completely incompatible, and since most of these books are ancient, even the writer’s original meaning is vastly different from the modern reader’s interpretation. These books were written for the people of the time in which they were conceived and could only be read and understood from that view point. Any translations can only be in error since the world that forged them is now just a distant memory.
Translating to another language can be fraught with difficulty. Words in one language seldom translate directly word for word leaving the interpreter with the task of trying to first understand the context of the paragraph before choosing the most appropriate word. Mistranslations of this type can be left undiscovered for many years if not centuries. The Bible is littered with many examples leading to religious faith being founded on nothing more than a translator error.
I remember times when I journeyed to Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, London and stood watching members of the public standing on their soap box (or small ladder standing in for a soap box) verbalising their thoughts on their chosen topics, usually religious. It was obvious from the rapture on their face that they believed fervently in the words they were speaking. It was also obvious from the ridicule given from the crowd that they did not understand what the person was saying. The person used their words from a wealth of experience, each word carefully chosen, each having a depth of meaning which far outstripped the word itself – an attachment to the symbol of that word. Since the crowd had not had the same experience as the speaker, they could not, and would not, see the same meaning.
When one studies any reading matter – poems, prose, novels and even factual texts – one reads and understands from the place we have reached in our life to that point. We gather the information, knowledge, understanding and experiences from life and place our values and interpretations on those words that we read. For us to comprehend those words, for them to make their mark on us, to make sense, we need to have had a similar experience, otherwise our perception filter will prevent the words from reaching our understanding.
Have you ever tried to read a book on a subject which you had no interest in? You are able to read the words that appear before you but their purpose and intention just doesn’t seem to sink in. They just don’t have any significance, they do not resonate with you.
Why use one word when 100 will do? Normally, many words, maybe hundreds or even thousands, are used to describe context to illustrate what the writer is trying to express. What the writer is doing is laying the foundations necessary to minimise possible misunderstandings. Since we all have our own dictionary, our own understanding, we endeavour to pass this to another but we find we are unable to do this directly using just a few well chosen words. Since these are our words we have to explain, give context, give a framework, give a perspective, so the person reading can gain some semblance of appreciation of what lies behind the words and the meaning of what the words are trying to purvey.
Poetry is a good example of where few words exist. A poem consists of words that have been set down on paper in order to pass to the reader an emotion, a feeling or an idea. These words are strong in meaning for the writer but will lack the impact to the reader unless they are familiar with the experiences described.
When reading a poem the words may not have any specific meaning for us beyond the ability to grasp the language constructs – the way the words flow and rhyme. Any deeper understanding of the intention of the writer will be lost unless we can see past the words and observe the message that the words contain.
Read the following from a poem I wrote in 1994. Although this is just an extract from a much larger poem, it may just be possible to gain insight from what I was feeling.
Surface bravery, attempt to conceal
multitudinous layers starting to peel
My self worth is rapidly going
leaving only the raw bits showing.
Unless you have had similar experiences to mine, seeing your life turn upside down, and not knowing how and when life will become stable again, you will be hard put to understand the underlying meaning to these words. Let me explain.
Surface bravery, attempt to conceal is my way of being courageous, of putting on a brave face, trying to prevent those around me from seeing my pain. I felt that people would think less of me if I displayed my emotions. I am a ‘man’ after all.
Multitudinous layers starting to peel is my pain. I am falling apart inside not knowing why. The layers that are at the very centre of my being are unravelling quite rapidly.
My self worth is rapidly going is how I feel about myself and my inability to deal with the events that are surrounding me, hemming me in. These events and situations are such that I feel I no longer have any control in my life. I feel besieged by events I view as unsolvable.
Leaving only the raw bits showing is where I have experienced a lot of heavy emotion in a very short space of time. I feel incredibly exposed with all the raw feelings on the surface. Feelings of sadness, anger, frustration and guilt.
As we grow spiritually, emotionally and mentally, the universe throws us into situations which test our progress. These tests provide confirmation that we are moving in the right direction and in the right way. I have noticed that, over these past few years, from 1994 in fact, that as I have moved further along the spiritual path, I have made efforts to converse with those that have chosen not to follow.
Originally, as I first stepped onto the path, I was able to be understood by those around me but as I moved further along, the words I used were no longer comprehensible by those people. The meanings were clouded by their interpretations of my words. The further I journeyed, the further I was distanced from my original friendships and the less I remained in their company. I found that the path I was travelling contained many other like minded souls who I could converse with and where my words were understood. It was as though we were able to talk a common language. Sometimes I still see some of my original friends but we seem to be divided by that same common language – English.
I have also found that as I travelled forwards on the path, the measuring stick I used to gauge my transformation seemed to change with me. At first, the stick was easily compared with where I used to be. Now it is very difficult to measure the transformation since I have grown so much in the last few years. I simply cannot remember what I used to be like.
A way of measuring is to read a paragraph from a book that appears, at least on the surface, to be meaningless – the understanding is just out of your reach. After a few months or maybe years, return to the same paragraph and re-read. Do the words have resonance? Can you understand the meaning? I have had this experience several times now. I have read articles or paragraphs in spiritual or personal growth books and found the meaning incomprehensible. After a particularly difficult few months with emotions and feelings, releasing and clearing, I went back to the same article or paragraph and found to my amazement that I could understand the meaning. My experience had given me an insight that was beyond grasp before.
Words are of great importance for a counsellor. I have seen quite a few therapists during my years on the path (and before) and, with their help, shed a few tears and a substantial amount of my emotional baggage. Having experienced the hours of discussion that took place I can see that, had I not been willing to give time and space to this, I would be a more angry person now. This time has enabled me to see the valuable role they play in bringing conclusions, or at the very least, an understanding of our difficulties.
In seeing a counsellor, we do not talk in order to give the counsellor an understanding of our plight – a mistake that many a person has made. The counsellor simply establishes a two way dialog in a safe and comfortable environment where we are able to discover the words for ourselves and from our own vocabulary. It is this process that guides us to an understanding of our situation and our emotions. In essence, we find our own solutions.
It has been said that once a thing is named, an understanding follows. Counselling is no different in its outcome. Once we are able to grasp the words that name the feelings we have deep inside, and the trauma that gave rise to them, these feelings can be released. I for one, when I am able to name something, find it is much easier to let go the fear and the sorrow and move on.
We are like onions. Yes, I said onions. Onions have layers. As you peel one away so another appears. We are the same. We have layers too. When we manage to work though one difficult layer of emotion, we will find another underneath. The difficulties presented by this new layer are not the same as the one just released. The lessons are different and the emotions have a different cause. Although the emotions may feel the same – it is difficult to distinguish similar emotions – the underlying issues will be entirely unique. And will require unique solutions.
The situation is not as bad as it is painted. There is actually a benefit to removing these layers. We are lighter, we are able to function better, we are able to communicate with less doubt and less ambiguity, and it definitely does get easier the more you move through the layers. This is a process of gathering resources. For each layer a different resource is provided to us. And the more resources we have the easier it becomes to pass through the next layer.
Babylon 5 quotes Copyright © J. Michael Straczynski and Warner Brothers
Transcript from Start Trek: The Voyage Home
Copyright © Paramount Pictures Corporation.