How often do you try to find the right word and it just won’t come to mind? You weigh this and that one, but it’s not the perfect fit. It doesn’t express exactly what you’re trying to say, what you’re feeling and thinking.
Or let’s say the right word comes to mind, but the person who hears it takes it the opposite of how you meant it. And you have to say: “No, no, that’s not what I mean.” And you start doing the word-search thing in your brain again.
You’re reminded that words are so slippery and squishy and imprecise and so damn frustrating. All words — from those in our texts and emails to those in our sacred scriptures – are inexact expressions of incomplete thoughts. Always.
In a sense, a word is like a cup. You can dip a cup into the ocean and fill it with salt water, but you can’t fit the entire ocean into that cup. It’s too small and limited.
It’s the same with words. Words can never contain anything completely – any thought, any experience, any feeling. It’s just not possible.
And this matters more than I can put into words.
We’re tempted to treat words as though they can somehow be infallible. In fact, they’re never that way. This applies to everything we write or say, and it’s important to remember.
Words simply don’t work that way.
I’m reminded of it every time I write something and get responses. Some of them have totally misconstrued the intended message. And I’m tempted to say: Wait, whose blog did you just read?
Part of it is that each of us attaches slightly different meanings to words. For example, if you grew up in a family that was reasonably loving and sane, hearing the word “family” will spark a favorable emotional reaction. If your family was over-the-top dysfunctional, that same word will make you shudder on some levels.
Same word, very different reactions.
Also, words resist our best efforts to pin them down to exact meanings. That’s why legal contracts have so many of them. And theologies, too. Big, unusual words with lots of syllables. We think that by multiplying our words and making them unwieldy, we can make them more precise. But we still end up fighting over them and what they mean.
And here’s the real kicker: Even we’ve come up with some measure of agreement over what a word means, it all changes. Words evolve. Just like a child growing from newborn to toddler to teenager, words go through phases and significant changes.
I’m reminded of how words evolve every Christmas when I hear Andy Williams sing about gay happy meetings. Or when the “Flintstones” theme plays and says we’ll have a gay old time. Or when someone tells me something is “cool” and they’re not talking about temperature. Or they say “bad” to mean “good.”
Words aren’t static. Their meanings change.
And we’re not even going to get into that whole translation thing. No languages match perfectly. When we take an imprecise word from one language and pair it with an imprecise word from another language, important meanings get lost. And when we take a passage from long ago and strip it from its cultural context, the words can become essentially useless. Or dangerous.
So, what’s the point to all of this? Perhaps that we have to respect words for what they are, including their immense limitations. When we do that, then words really can work for us.
Because even though words are limited, they’re also some of the most powerful things we have. They can inspire or hurt, help or hinder. They can spark love or hate, give us hope or dampen it. They can engage us and challenge us and sooth us. They can connect us or separate us.
We need to give words their proper due – no less, no more.
To use another analogy, a word is like a car. You can’t get into a car and drive to a star – the car’s limitations won’t allow it. But you can get behind the wheel, drive up one of those winding mountain roads, reach the peak and look up.
And as you do, you’re thankful that the car has just taken you to a place where you can see more brilliant stars than you’ve ever seen before. You’re still far away from them, but a little bit closer.
Close enough to make you smile, wipe away a tear and say: Wow! This is amazing. I’m glad the car could get me here.