Words are keys. There is satisfaction in opening a gate by using the right key, in discovering that feelings have labels, and terms have meanings. Someone has a way with words, we say casually, often missing the metaphor: that to go through everyday life is to navigate in a jungle of things and ideas, and that the reason we are fond of people who use words well is that they help us find our own path.
But there are times when it feels like language limits us even as it liberates us. (Look up, for instance, the intriguing theory of linguistic relativity, brought to the limelight recently by the movie Arrival. Essentially it says that the structure of a language influences if not determines how we perceive or experience the world, the most well-known, or controversial, example being that the tenseless Hopi Indian language reflects how the Hopi have a different conception of time than that of modern people.) So there are limitations of a specific language and how we use it, and not only because of the presence or absence of a word in a certain language. “To grasp the meaning of the world of today, we use a language created to express the world of yesterday. The life of the past seems to us nearer our true natures, but only for the reason that it is nearer our language,” says Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. “Language attempts to catch reality in a net,” writes Henry Christ, “but reality won’t be caught. No matter how one labels things or persons, they exist regardless.”
Words are currency. It’s as if the moment we are born, we are thrown into a marketplace where we could not buy or sell anything unless we had the right type of money. We learn early that if we want food, favor, or friendship, we pay for it with exclamations, gestures, and, most efficiently, words. You wouldn’t know what a person is like unless you spend time talking to him in a variety of contexts. But when language becomes too much a function of economics, it starts to restrict. Human language is a double-edged sword that limits and liberates, often at the same time.
It’s interesting to imagine how we could ever think without words. How would you? The Miracle Worker, a movie about how Annie Sullivan tutored Helen Keller, makes you pay close attention to the nature of language. Anger, awe, control, hope, and attachment, it turns out, are not at all foreign to a nine-year-old child who tragically could not see, hear, or speak, and who is unwilling to let anyone get through her. But how glorious it was for her to finally come to realize that there is a name for those emotions, the same way it finally occurred to her that the cold, flowing, colorless substance gushing out from the tap to encompass her hand is called water. Helen Keller was born a human being, but it seemed she didn’t become fully human until the moment she grasped language. And she didn’t stop with water or cake or key; she went on to become an honored advocate and a source of inspiration to many others.
So there’s probably more to the idea of words being currency in the marketplace called the world. The evolutionist says that we learn language simply because we need it: your mother feeds you if you cry a certain way; nanny changes your diapers if you cry another way; you’re a good boy or good girl if you say the “magic word”; people buy your product if you hire good marketers. But something compels us to go further. If we believe language is a gift, we are also drawn to believe that it exists because there are deeper needs than survival, getting what we want, or propagating our genes. A child may have been so deprived she looks malnourished for life, but that would not stop her from becoming a writer who talks about transcendence.
When we don’t use language in strictly economical ways, language, fallible as it is, can be a great means for fulfillment and flourishing. And as can be seen in the stories of people we know who overcome various kinds of obstacles, it is possible that there is a different, future world where infinitely better fulfillment is available, where language does not restrict but only liberates, where it is perfect aside from being useful. After all, according to Peter Edman, “the deepest things about us are in what we cannot directly express, what comes through in the spaces between the words.”
The linguist Edward Sapir once suggested that maybe language is not so much a garment as a prepared road or groove. If so, perhaps it means that our deepest need may not be so much for mere shelter from the elements as for transport and transformation, that somehow we were not supposed to stay in this place forever. Or at least that this place will not always be what it is.
Maybe, as in Helen Keller’s life, the purpose of language is not so much utility as revelation. Maybe we were not born into a marketplace after all, but into the wrong side of the Garden.
What do we celebrate when we greet each other Happy New Year? In the language of modern business at least, it is that in the project of Showing Up—of keeping on and staying alive—you and I have made it. Congratulations.
Time ambles on, and while some have “stepped out of life’s procession” (including, notably, some music icons), here we are. We celebrate the fact that though we are not celebrities, at least we’re in the show, if not to be onstage, at least to be spectators of whatever the running story is. “Even a live dog,” the author of Ecclesiastes says, “is better off than a dead lion,” which is to say show up, keep on keeping on, and you’ll be rewarded for it, though not to say that the departed are less meritorious. I love this picture and this enterprise of showing up because it seems to be one of the few places not yet tainted by the disease of You Don’t Matter If You Have Nothing to Show for It. “Blessed are those who show up and stay on” would probably make it into the Beatitudes. “For those who allow time’s constancy and change to shape them and reveal ultimate reality to them will be delivered from the Cult of Hecticness and Oppressive Comparison.” Just show up, whether in your Sunday best or in your tattered, time-worn worst.
Happy New Year is always a milestone. In rolls another year, and for some reason it evokes particular reflection that is not normally occasioned by the turn of another month, or a quarter, or even a decade.
I’ve been thinking about time as that—a mystery and a gift. Time as gift seems easy enough; as mystery, it’s quite hard to describe. We all have the same number of seconds per minute, the time-management consultants would tell us, whether we tell time by the clock, the number of journals we’ve filled, the heartbeats or paces registered in our smartwatches, the cups of coffee we’ve consumed, or even the number of jobs we’ve let go of or were let go from. Or opportunities lost. The funny thing about time is that unlike money, your favorite drink, or your data credit, you don’t save it by not using it.
Hecticness is understandable. After all, as Oliver Burkeman writes, “Given that the average lifespan consists of only about 4,000 weeks, a certain amount of anxiety about using them well is presumably inevitable: we’ve been granted the mental capacities to make infinitely ambitious plans, yet almost no time at all to put them into practice.” And let’s not for a moment presume that our problem is just quantity; it’s also quality. “Wherever we go, there seems to be only one business at hand—that of finding workable compromises between the sublimity of our ideas and the absurdity of the fact of us,” says Annie Dillard.
And that is exactly one of time’s mysteries. We dwell in it, and the we part is itself teeming with mystery enough to fill volumes.
It’s borrowed time (there goes the capitalism parallel again), the operative word being borrowed. From whom? And on what terms? You get different answers. Some say from chance, from the Force, from the universe, from evolution, from the future generation. From God.
Time changes us. Or at least reveals that we are not really as constant, consistent, or in control as we think we are. If you’re into modern philosophers, you might have come across one of those French ones who said that the principal question in life ought to be “Why not commit suicide?” In your teenage angst you may have agreed, and maybe even published your agreement with a poem, or a tattoo. Now, perhaps singing a lullaby to a six-month-old baby in your arms, you might say, what nonsense!
Time as mysterious. You get the idea.
I’ve come to realize that whenever I see time as a minor gift of the bigger gift of eternity, it’s easier to wean myself away from the idea that the main thing about time is how to manage it. For whoever bothers about managing a gift? As Frederick Buechner writes,
The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.
Happy New Year. Keep showing up, and enjoy the gift.
Remember, my dear, to unfurrow your brow at least more
than half the time, that for all the liberties we fight for
in this world that we insist ought to be just, we should not
forget the right to refuse the oppressive accusation of anxiety.
Let the doggone proverbial other shoe drop wherever it may,
but for heaven’s sake let us not hinder the peace that passes
understanding from descending like a deluge where it will.
Remember, my dear, the children so carefree they might as
well be living in another world. Remember how we were
children once, more in touch with our preciousness and yet
never hounded by the compulsion, like a dictator, to retain the
status by our performances and endless, vicious, unspoken
comparisons. Who knows when we will become children again?
Remember that vengeance is not ours, and yet still that
those who succeed in injustice will not persist, and those who
persist in it will not succeed. That though we work our
butts off precariously toeing the line between drudgery and
insanity, somewhere beyond the horizon is a home cozier
than even a hobbit’s in the Shire.
Somewhere farther than we know (but for all we know,
in a sense closer than our own heartbeats), there is a rest
beneath the rest.
Remember, my dear, that at the center of the universe,
no matter how hidden it may be—obscured by our unholy
strivings or numbed by our cherished scars—is a face
acquainted with our troubles, but wearing not a frown
nor a smirk but a smile.
(March 2016, pace Frederick Buechner, Tim Keller, & Loren Eisely)
First, the power switch, the volume rocker. The touch screen.
The front-facing camera, about which not enough cultural
commentary could be said. Then, apps. There’s one on
which you can read news, order food or a taxi, keep up
with the Joneses, or watch cat videos.
I know, you would say it’s the modern preoccupation
with distracting ourselves, as though “killing time”
doesn’t make assassins out of us. You’d say we don’t need
the luxury of a powerful pocket computer when there are
children out there who don’t have food.
And like you, I’d pick battery life and sunlight readability
over an abundance of bells and whistles any day.
But a gift is a gift, and wouldn’t it be a little unstewardly
to refuse it when providence has so placed you in a
segment of history where technology lets you talk
to your daughter and grandson halfway around the world,
digital face to digital face? It would be like refusing
to eat the vegetables that you said the farmers
worked so much for to bring to our table.
So I encourage you to explore the device and assure you
that you won’t break it—unless by break you mean making
it submit to you as its owner—because apart
from the fateful Reset button, which will give you fair warning
anyway, you won’t mistakenly press something that would
destroy it or render the memories you put into it
irretrievable, the same way you assured us (though perhaps
not in so many words) that we could never get off the
edge of your love for us.
But watch out for those clickbaits and pop-ups that
congratulate you for winning contests you do not recall joining.
They are the candy-dangling strangers you warned us about
when we were schoolchildren.
Moving on, the Back button, the stationary icon that says
return—one mark of our ability to connect to the
past, to undo, correct, revert, revisit; a reminder that
no matter how we may have mastered user interfaces, it is
still a jungle out there, and we are all still Hansels and
Gretels occasionally relying on the mercy of breadcrumbs.
And if all else fails, there is the Home button so that
whatever screen or however far down the menus you may find
(or lose) yourself in, there will always be a familiar place
that you can retreat to, with one tap. Just like home.
You are the one who blesses our way (keeping it safe
by night and day) and who blesses, by extension,
the sweet lover who happens to be our driver. You
are the original bleeding heart, the vivid painting
showing thorns snug on the ventricles, Your gaze able
to follow anyone from whichever angle, as any
perceptive child would notice—as if to say in no uncertain
terms, “God knows Hudas not pay.” But if by any
chance the crucifix (swinging to the rhythm of the
pendulous head of a dog or the waving hand of a
golden cat) is any clue to the roots of reality, of course
we all know who ultimately pays.
Meanwhile, on this side of eternity, it remains a
disappointment how seating capacity is not really about
seating, how it riles every self-respecting passenger
capable of counting that all too often, two or more things
are made to occupy the same space at the same time.
How the posted minimum fare and no-smoking sign
are sometimes simply decorative.
On this side, where the commerce of man meets the
economy of God, our madnesses, faith, and superstitions
mix, here with the request to please pay in coins in the
morning, to wear seat belts and segregate trash,
to vacate seats for the pregnant and disabled, and all the
other republic acts that make for good memorizing in
quizzes but somehow fall perennially short of making
our nation more than the metaphorical reference of an
old repurposed vehicle whose checkup has been
overdue for more than a decade.
But maybe from a wider view the reference is not just to
us as a people but to us as a race. Maybe Your traveling mercies
are for everyone, so that even if Your pictures often
function only as lucky charms, if anyone ever asks where
God was in the frustrations, the crises, and the tedious
uneventfulness, at least one could say with certainty
he was there all along, right with us on the ride.
While the Web page loads to show me what inun-unan is in English,
I put the phone down, say grace, and—with the kind of nonchalant
ambidexterity we apply to things we’ll take for granted on this day—
pick apart the bones off one side of the fish, separating morsel from
nonedibles: red-orange scales, tail, spine, what remains of the head.
As if to honor its memory (or as though it would), I pause to marvel
at the fresh whiteness of this piece of sea meat, harvested at dawn
by fishermen who continue to fish despite being unenriched by the job,
from the bounty of a sea that continues to give despite being polluted;
and at how effortlessly fish-molecules—infused with vinegar—merge
with people-molecules so that at any given time, you have something of
sea and land, animal and plant in you; at how, no matter which specific
arc of the circle of life you bite, someone is bound to be offended, for
food is really a matter of one dying for another to continue living. And
it’s not your fault this is how things are, for how else do you in fact take
part in the dance of the universe but through standing on the shoulders
of giants; entering the world, for instance, through a life-threatening
event. You can only hope that by heeding the call to “take and eat,”
gracefully, grudgingly, gratefully, grumpily, any manner but guiltily,
you may eventually stop trying to live off the fat of your ability, off
the produce of your guarded, steely sufficiency, and like fish, broken but
multiplied, lay down your life.
Who knows how many have been called before
or since? After all, if you’re a settled city dweller,
it seems foolish to trust the voice of a deity that
you don’t have a sculpture of—when all other
deities have their own little specializations.
The only heaven you might know is having enough
number of children to preserve your bloodline—
which, if you’re past ninety, is not much. Just one.
So with the barren state of your octogenarian wife
and what infant mortality might look like four millennia
ago, you stepped out into what could only be called
by some as either credulity or wish fulfillment.
But the reward for believing, the Voice says, is descendants
whose numbers rival the best analogies for multitude:
more than hordes or herds or even the still-bushy
wild hair on your head seasoned by decades
of Middle Eastern sandstorms and sun,
starting with one named Laughter, then through him
twins, and twelve tribes, and two hundred nations,
some growing to hate one another to death, but finally
including one to be called Prince of Peace, whose life was
not to be spared, unlike Isaac’s.
And when this Prince talks about how “before Abraham
was born, I am,” you knew what he meant, as you sharply
remember thinking how it wouldn’t have mattered whether
you drove the knife through your son’s chest or yours.