Through our constant search of philosophies and ways of thinking, we have all gradually become citizens of the world of words. We read and listen, write and speak with others. Words conceptualize the world for us.
In many ways, this approach has worked out amazingly well. Words have enabled the communication through which we have come to know so much about the world. Thanks to technological and scientific progress, we can now discuss what used to be unspeakable.
Yet, albeit a net positive, words have downsides too. Indeed, in some subtle ways, words can serve not for the construction of greater understanding, but rather for that of mental prisons.
Ironically, I probably first became deeply conscious of the hidden dangers that lie in an over-dependence on words through books about Taoism.
The seminal text of Taoism, Tao Te Ching, begins with the words: “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao”.
Admittedly, like much of Taoism, it sounds superficially paradoxical and even potentially meaningless.
Yet, delving deeper, it becomes clear that there is in fact meaning and that it’s a pretty profound one on that. Namely, that words cannot ultimately capture the essence of the real world; that all attempts at describing are fated to always be incomplete approximations, regardless of how good they actually are.
Intuitively, we know that something like the above should be true. Analyzed carefully enough, all issues start to display nuances, each of which requiring more and more words to describe. We may try to escape from this unfortunate chase after reality by saying that a word points to a specific process or a phenomenon (without giving any description of it). However, problems inevitably arise.
For one, it seems impossible to separate the use of a word from our world-view, emotions and moral intuitions. In other words, whenever we use a word, we are bound to communicate much more than mere concepts. Take the simple example of the word “soul”. To many it’s a synonym of “psyche” or “mind”. However, opinions on the existence of gods and even aesthetics can significantly affect the use of the word by believers and atheists alike.
For another, words are vessels of identity. For example, take the word human. For those who see and identify with the good in us, the word becomes a source of positivity. However, for misanthropes, human is far from the highest praise one wishes to bestow on others.
It is important to note that such difference in connotation are not always a sign of willful bias. It’s not like everyone who loves humans sees all the evil humans do and chooses to ignore it. Rather, each of us is limited to our own limited experience and knowledge. To some, humans might indeed have always been amazing. To others, humans might have always brought them pain. Using the same word looked through such vastly different experiences can therefore naturally bring about confusion, fights, even wars (especially in political and ideological context).
Yet, the world as it is is not limited to our experience. The world contains all sides of the story. The Tao that can be named is indeed not the true Tao — the world is simply too complicated for our limited experiences and minds.
We all know how frustrating it can be to try and describe ourselves in words online. It feels like whatever we say will never quite ring true. Similarly, we complain when people describe us wrongly, “put us into boxes”. If even we feel this way, imagine how reality feels faced with human words and language..
So, words can hardly capture the wholeness of reality. Still, if that imperfection exhausted all of words’ downsides, we could probably keep relying on them. After all, as humans, we are hardly any less imperfect anyway.
However, a reliance on words does us active harm through more than a simple lack of nuance.
If you’re like me, you have listened to multiple successful people exalt the virtue of adaption to new circumstances. As our constant craving for fats and sugars clearly attests, living in a new world with an old understanding can prove quite detrimental.
If adaption is the goal, however, words can be at least as much a hinderance as they are an assistance.
Probably my favorite example for this is the concept of a best friend. And let’s agree to leave aside the very coherence of the concept (itself possibly a vain plain of words: if there are friends, there surely must be a best one, right? wrong.)
Now, if you think of somebody as your best friend and find them doing something deeply hurtful to you, you would be tempted to cry out “how could my best friend do this to me?!”. Yet, why not say “oh, I guess they are not my best friend anymore”? The answer is because the concept of a “best friend” made you look at the world through a lens which no longer fits. The world has shifted underneath the fixed grid imposed on it by language and the consequence is one: pain. Pain from the sudden mismatch between reality and the words we have come to live by.
We often forget how miraculous it is that scientific laws do not change on us from moment to moment. The very reason why words are safe(r) when applied to physics and maths is what makes them dangerous in the highly volatile context of relationships. Words allow us to accumulate and store knowledge of phenomena over time, but only in so far as the world has not changed in the mean time.
It is therefore obvious that we should be careful when applying labels, both of praise and of condemnation. The person whom we said we loved the character of might not be as good natured anymore. The person whom we condemned for their absurd opinions might have changed his/her mind.
This stickiness of labels is why many traditions such as buddhism and taoism tend to emphasize the role of direct observation (often through meditation) and direct hands-on action. This way, instead of relying on words and mental images all the time, we ensure a closer contact with reality, one that is a lot more conductive to adaptation than words. Simply put, waking up and rediscovering the world anew with each conscious moment keeps us saner and makes us wiser. Labels can become wrong. Reality is always right. Thus, the closer we stay to it, the better.
Finally, it’s worth reflecting on the effects of words on our individuality.
There is a natural tendency within us to exemplify the concepts we identify with fully. Political and philosophical ideologies often cause us to form identities around isms of various sorts.
As a consequence, what started out purely descriptively (e.g. I guess I am a capitalist) can easily transform into playing out or reacting against stereotypes. Similar to many religions, finding yourself in agreement with one position often snowballs into adopted unthought out agreement with many. Put differently, words are social and using them exposes us to social and ideological pressures to conform.
That is why when we want to “find ourselves” we naturally get drawn to solitude. After all, in solitude we are free to think for ourselves, away from the words and norms of others. Moreover, in solitude meditation comes to us naturally and we observe the world better. A picture, a sound, a touch speak a thousand words if only we would allow them to.
Ultimately, here’s a word of advice: don’t always take advice from words.
Words are tools, but they cannot always describe the world completely. Yes, they can guide us, but they can also mislead us. Thus, it stands to reason that we should not be thinking all the time; that sometimes we should instaed escape the mental prison built from words, go out and just be and just do — nameless, natural, free.
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