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On Words

Mary Klein
On Words (November 2021)

Language is a technology, a means of employing experience-based knowledge for practical purposes. Words are torches that beam from mind to mind, prompting individuals to turn their attentions in the same direction and to coordinate their efforts for survival. Many species rely on communication systems in this way. Homo sapiens, however, is a species that seems to have undergone a freakishly powerful cognitive mutation about 70,000 years ago. We became enabled then to speak of fictions.

Our newly mutated species developed an ability to share imagination-based knowledge for practical purposes. Earlier bands of sapiens were composed of individuals who held only experience-based knowledge, like the awareness that each member of their own band was related to them in a particular way. The newer sapiens bands were composed of individuals who could hold imagination-based knowledge, like the idea that all the bands in the region were related to each other in some abstract way.

The result, as Yuval Noah Harari put it, is that “Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers.” (2015) Because of this development, coordinated bands of sapiens became able to drive all other human species to extinction (neanderthalensis, rudolfensis, erectus, and more). Then, as we sapiens spread from continent to continent, expanding our foraging grounds, we also drove about half the world’s species of megafauna to extinction – including mammoths, mastodons, american camels, giant ground sloths, saber-tooth cats, and rodents the size of bears  – all finished before we had even invented agriculture. Today, the collective fictions that send us ravaging include nation-states, corporations, and currencies.

Yet, strangely, we have been told, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

These two aspects of language – the technological strength it gives us to shape our reality and the primal creative force it expresses in offering and accepting awareness – were seen by the earliest Friends as standing in stark opposition to each other. They spoke of a “Lamb’s war” between “the earthly man” and “the spiritual man.” They spoke of “lusts of the flesh” versus “everlasting life.” They disparaged “professors,” who merely profess Truth, while they lauded “possessors,” who possess Truth drawn from direct experience. Both sorts of persons use their fleshy mouths to speak of things everlasting. The first sort professes words conjured up within their own three pounds of brain. To the likes of these, Sarah Blackborow wrote in 1658: “God will not be mocked . . . it matters not how high your sights, your notions, your airy imaginations are, they are to little purpose, it may join you to the more refined builders of Babel . . .” The second sort of person uses words and silence simply to express awareness and love. To these, Blackborow wrote: “Oh! Love truth and its Testimony, whether its Witness be to you, or against you, love it, that . . . you may embrace, and be embraced of my dearly beloved one, Love is his Name . . .”

We live in an age of profound loss and collective trauma, brought on by our present circumstances as well as by the cruelties of recent centuries. In every moment, every person around us is wading through various stages of grief, and those stages are constantly shifting. Now I’m angry; now I’m in denial; now I’m depressed; now I’m angry again. But no matter how it emerges, grief is direct experience, not fiction. We can point to grief with our words; we can cause new grief with our words; but grief itself is a thing in itself. It is a living awareness of an attachment that has been sundered. “Grief, when it comes with an awareness and affirmation of eternal transformation,” wrote Jim Corbett, “is the beginning of compassion.” (1991)

Let us bear witness to each other’s grief. Every loss contains another chance to perceive Life’s contours, its limitations, the fecund substance of co-creation. Let’s not distract each other from the current moment with would-be comforting words of justification and resolution. Rather, let’s simply wait and observe together – memories of what we have lost, evidence of what still remains. Let us tease apart the strands of our observations from the strands of our wishful thinking. And though we are right to give thanks for the powers of our imaginations, let’s turn our minds and bodies together in service to that which we experience together to be real and True. ~~~

Language inward light Continuing revelation

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