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Don't We Get to Choose What Words Mean?
Clay wrote a brilliant comment on my last post dissenting (somewhat) about the importance of words, roots, and their meaning. I started to write a comment in response but it became clear that that response is its own post.
First, I really appreciate Clay voicing his comment, for multiple reasons. I love dialogue and not getting a free lunch with what I say. I also enjoy having true beliefs and ideas, even if that means I have to get rid of some things I'd like to believe. That said, if anyone reading this blog ever disagrees with me, please comment to that effect.
His main question:
Words are symbols, and when it comes to our internal (and even external) personal development dialog, don't we get to chose the referent?
Okay, what's our deal with words? To say that it's typical for a philosopher and an English professor to worry about words isn't helpful, though it's true. The reason we (maybe I shouldn't indict her on this one) worry about words is that a good word, or phrase, can be worth a thousand pictures.
Sure, we often times do change the meaning of words, but finding a good one that captures what you're thinking is just as powerful as being able to visualize a picture of what you want.
An example may be in order: take my goal of moving from the type of lifestyle I currently live to one more fitting for my nature. I could leave that desire opaque, but it doesn't help motivate me. It's not graspable enough to motivate me.
However, having a word or phrase that references that goal and conjures up the emotions and drive is far better. So it's tentatively called "Walden." Not to mention it's far quicker, to boot.
Another clearer example that we don't get to choose our words. Sorry, this is going to have one of those "this one time at band camp" stories because I was a trail and canoe guide at a Boy Scout camp for most of my teenage life. I shared a tent with some of my other friends (because we had to), and our tent became a popular hangout. At all times of the day, and sometimes even when we were trying to sleep, there would be people hanging out on, and off of, our tent porch. All day, hanging and jabbering like a bunch of monkeys. So I started calling them what they were: "porchmonkeys".
Everyone knew what I meant, but there was also this other thing: I was the only minority at this camp. And I didn't know (really) how porchmonkey was used, at first - and when I found out, I decided to "take it back" and keep using it anyways. I think everyone felt so uncomfortable about telling me that I couldn't use it that they (mostly) adopted my meaning and embraced the fact that they were, indeed, porchmonkeys.
(Sidebar: If you're not from certain parts of the United States, you may not know that "porchmonkey" is a racial slur used against African Americans, mainly, but other minorities, as well.)
So, while I agree with Clay that words are symbols, we, individually, don't get to choose their meanings and referents. Language is a social convention - we, collectively, choose what words mean. Until one person can get the other other to share the meaning of the words, we may at best have communication, but we don't have understanding. We're not sharing the same ideas.
We can, and often do, attach different thoughts, ideas, and emotions and transfer them onto words. Most of the words used in the personal development arena - happiness, productivity, success, and, yes, even flourishing - intertwine different thoughts, ideas, and emotions. This can be both good and bad. It's bad, for example, when we understand productivity to be externally oriented - as I mentioned the other day, productivity is not about things.
Muddying powerful concepts with ideas, emotions, and thoughts that dilute their power is what we're trying to avoid. "Passion" is horribly muddied in this sense, probably on both the individual and social levels. It's the difference between your favorite picture with every detail, every color, and every important feature clearly visible and that same picture blurred or faded through time. We can fight the tide and clean up the word - or we can use one that's not muddied. And we must remember, that words and metaphors work at a level that we're unconscious of.
I personally thought Clay's speaking of waking up our true selves and wreaking havoc on the world in beautiful ways was so powerful because it captured the truth that if everyone's beauty and goodness manifested, it would destroy many features of the world as we know it. Clay communicated with me clearly precisely because he used the right words in the right phrase. He painted the perfect picture - through words.
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