I’ve wanted to write a blog post for several days and could not find the words to offer anything very interesting. But this morning, reading “The Art of Description” by Mark Doty, I came to a passage I’d marked some days ago and found worth pondering.
“…each descriptive act is one attempt to render the world, subject to revision. Perception is provisional; it gropes, considers, hypothesizes. Saying is now a problematic act, not a given; one might name what one sees this way, but there’s also that one, and that one. And if we’re not certain what we should say, can we be certain of what we’ve seen?”
Doty is primarily speaking on writing and especially poetry, but I also see the same dynamics in spoken words between people. We don’t know how to communicate because we don’t know what we’re seeing in the other person. We filter our vision through our own perspective. Say for example the other person frowns: we could read this as a disapproving look towards ourself or we could read it as a thinking frown, removing the person’s interest from ourself and into their own head, or we could believe a tiny bug creeps through the eyebrow hairs. So, okay, that’s probably not really very likely, but you get the point. I hope. We don’t really know what a frown means and only interpret it according to our own experience, our own perspective. I would certainly frown on feeling a tiny bug clambering though my eyebrow – either one, come to think of it. And then I’d worry about ticks or something. At that point, I’m both frowning from a physical feeling AND a worry. See what I mean?
Some months ago, while reading The Meaning of Meaning, I came across the concept that words, in themselves, have no meaning – words are symbols of thought. Interesting. Words as symbols of thought. And that would explain why, even when two people speak the same language and have the same background, we can misunderstand the thought that creates the sentence. “But you said…..” we say. “No I didn’t say…..” we say. But not understanding that words reflect thought, thinking instead they reflect more words in a dictionary, we misunderstand the thought and think about the thought that’s created in our own personal repertory of experiences and perception. And then we argue about a word.
“Help me understand,” I sometimes manage to say. Help me unpack your experience and understanding so that I can understand what you are thinking. E-mail, for example, is notorious for being misunderstood. We can’t read the person’s perception electronically.
I like words. I like studying words and using a thesaurus and a dictionary to find the etymology and symbology of words. And I like writing them down and looking at them. And I like the precision of finding the exact right word to express the thought, even a thought that’s muddled. Muddled. Now there’s a kindly word. Muddled much kinder to my thought-process than stupid. But then stupid is a word I almost never use.
Maybe today is a day to think about the words you use – both toward yourself and toward others. Can you surprise yourself with the words you use by connecting them to the thoughts that produce them? Now there’s a task that could keep you pretty well occupied for most of the day!