As we seek to communicate and understand each other in human society, we rely largely upon language — as expressed verbally or in written words and symbols. This has enabled the accumulation and communication of a large body of useful knowledge. It has also enabled us to function together in society, bringing our species to its current level of civilization.
Language is such a common medium for understanding and navigating the world that it is easy to lose sight of the distinction between reality itself and the language used to describe and understand it. Words and phrases are merely symbols that point to particular experiences in reality rather than being reality itself — sort of like a “map” to reality rather than the “terrain” of reality itself.
Because of the above, language can sometimes become a limiting factor in one’s experience and understanding of the world. To a large degree, the content of conscious thought occurs in language. Our ability to conceive, perceive, and understand the events and phenomena we encounter depends significantly upon our ability to describe and label them. Alternatively, things which we have no words for sometimes fail to be perceived at all — or are miscategorized as something else that we are familiar with. (This latter effect may account for some instances of the paranormal (ghosts, faires, UFOs) or the conflicting accounts of traumatic events.)
Additionally, since everyone’s experience is subjective and to some degree unique, the meaning that any word points to and recalls is also somewhat unique to each person. In other words, between people, shared meaning through language is never (and perhaps never will be) perfectly aligned. Yet in most cases, especially when experiences are tangible and common, the meanings overlap well enough that conversants are functionally talking about the “same” thing.
Communication is further complicated by the fact that some experiences are not physically existent in the world and therefore cannot be directly pointed to, touched, or measured. Abstract concepts and internal experiences such as love, joy, beauty, responsibility — a large component of what it means to be human — cannot be directly seen or measured. These can only be inferred by their consequences. How we interpret those causal connections can vary widely — and these interpretations are often controversial. (For example, is corporal punishment “abuse” or “tough love”? Or, at what stage of the procreative process does “life” begin?)
Many of these latter types of words and concepts are widely used, but also have widely varying meanings and interpretations. Terms like “love”, “God”, “charity”. “freedom” — or in politics, “welfare”, “national security”, “Liberal”, “Conservative”, “immigrant” — all may evoke substantially different meanings to different constituencies. Yet there is a tendency to presume that when others use such terms, they are referring to exactly the same meaning, interpretation, or experience that “I” have. It is then easy to become confused, dismayed, and outraged when others, responding from their own interpretations, clash substantially with those of our own. (“HOW CAN THEY THINK LIKE THAT?!” Well, it is because they don’t think like “this”.)
As if the above weren’t confusing enough, there are other sorts of knowings that simply cannot be put into words — at least not without diminishing the experienced phenomena. Throughout history, why do such vast numbers of people engage in religious or spiritual ceremonies? Why can a seemingly innocuous poem or song bring one to tears? Why do metaphors and analogies communicate something meaningful? How does a touch-typist find the right keys on a keyboard? A hardcore materialist might explain each of these away as coincidence or conditioning, but such explanations ‘feel’ a bit simplistic (… another example of ‘tacit’ knowledge – i.e. “knowing more than one can say”).
A Society Moving Toward Enlightenment
A major goal in meditation practice, religious philosophies (especially those Eastern-flavored), and psychotherapy, is some sort of “enlightenment” (i.e. insight or understanding.) I particularly like the definition offered by one Zen Buddhist teacher:
“Enlightenment is simply the realization that there is a difference between reality and your story about reality.”
Like tacit knowledge, the whole of reality will always be more than one can put into words, and therefore conceptualize.
Similarly, when we are confused or outraged by another’s thoughts or behavior — or by circumstances in general, enlightenment would have us pause to realize that there are almost certainly aspects to the story of which we are not aware. A healthy response of humility then, would not be so much about submitting to another but rather an expansion of the limits of our own knowledge and experience by attempting to see through the other’s eyes.
That of course will not resolve every conflict, but in the least case, may reduce the emotional heat and open the door for further dialog, understanding, and compassion. In the best case, it may further our own personal development, and ultimately be another step toward a more harmonious, cohesive, and upwardly evolving society.