I love words. When I took the “Five Love Languages” quiz with my husband, my “love language” was a resounding “WORDS” (as opposed to service, quality time, physical touch and gift giving, although, for the record, I like all of those things, too). In other words, I feel particularly loved when people talk to me or lovingly about me, when they write me notes, letters, etc. And the way I express love most easily is also through words. I am always embarrassing my 10-year-old with declarations of love, asking my husband and the kids to describe to me their day in detail like a story, engaging with my dearest friends in long conversations, because it is how I feel that I can come to really know them, to be connected to their lives. I love to read and write and find ways to describe things in a way that moves people. And I love to be moved by words. I love words.
And yet … when all is said and done, the words always seem to fail on some level, don’t they? Words are limited. Thinking and expressing oneself verbally is not the same as intuition and feeling – the inspiration for our words. We try to describe the essence of what we are feeling, what we sense as truth, but the words always fall a little bit short.
In Yann Martel’s book, Beatrice and Virgil, this concept is beautifully illustrated when Beatrice tells Virgil she has never had a pear (you can read the entire excerpt here – it is a beautiful passage):
BEATRICE: Describe a pear for me. What is a pear like?
VIRGIL: (settling back) I can try. Let’s see . . . To start with, a pear has an unusual shape. It’s round and fat on the bottom, but tapered on top.
BEATRICE: Like a gourd.
VIRGIL: A gourd ? You know gourds but you don’t know pears? How odd the things we know and don’t. At any rate, no, a pear is smaller than an average gourd, and its shape is more pleasing to the eye. A pear becomes tapered in a symmetrical way, its upper half sitting straight and centred atop its lower half. Can you see what I mean?
BEATRICE: I think so.
The conversation continues for quite some time, as Beatrice asks more and more questions, and Virgil does his best to accurately describe the essence of a pear. Until at last, Beatrice asks what it tastes like, and Virgil replies:
VIRGIL: The taste of a good pear is such that when you eat one, when your teeth sink into the bliss of one, it becomes a wholly engrossing activity. You want to do nothing else but eat your pear. You would rather sit than stand. You would rather be alone than in company. You would rather have silence than music. All your senses but taste fall inactive. You see nothing, you hear nothing, you feel nothing—or only as it helps you to appreciate the divine taste of your pear.
BEATRICE: But what does it actually taste like?
VIRGIL: A pear tastes like, it tastes like . . . (He struggles. He gives up with a shrug.) I don’t know. I can’t put it into words. A pear tastes like itself.
BEATRICE: (sadly) I wish you had a pear.
Oh, how the words fail! You can’t describe the taste of a pear to someone who hasn’t bitten one! You just can’t! It must be experienced first-hand. And yet, when you have experienced something as Divine as a pear, you want to share that experience with someone else. You want to find others who can say, “Yes. YES. I LOVE pears.” This is how I think about my experiences with meditation; spirituality; Being-in-the-Quiet (See that? I just used three expressions of words to try to convey to you my experience with such things, and I am still not sure I hit the nail on the head.)
I think about the many, many inspired voices who have written sacred texts across cultures and throughout the history of the world, all in an attempt to describe the indescribable. All of these inspired people. People. Just like you and me. People who have experienced something that felt important to them and wanted to share it, and so they wrote it down in their own words, their best words. But what breaks my heart is that when other people read the words, they so often end up fighting over the words. Because the words can never completely capture our experiences in a way that can be understood and/or agreed upon universally. Each person’s path is sacred and unique, so each description is, too. Which means that as we experience and interpret things based on our own history, we should try to respect and understand the experiences being had by others, knowing theirs are just as delicious and sacred as ours.
I find this really hard to do when I am invested in my feelings – when something strikes me to the core. I feel a need for people to understand me, and so sometimes I feel the urge to get defensive when they don’t see things the same way I do. But, as Brené Brown notes on her blog, Ordinary Courage, “Self-righteousness is a sign of fear and uncertainty…The loudest and most vitriolic among us are often the most afraid. … ‘Change requires listening with same level of passion that we feel when we speak.’” Man, oh man, is that hard, but I love the idea. To listen as passionately as we speak. Phew. I really like to talk, and the listening comes a lot harder. Especially when I think I am right . Or at least when I fear the internal storm that may result if I am shown the possibility that I am wrong.
I am also reading Martha Beck’s new book right now, Finding Your Way in a Wild New World. Martha (love her) urges us to consider all of the things we hold to be true, and understand that it is entirely possible that the opposite could be true. I feel like this little pearl of wisdom helps me be a little less arrogant in my opinions, recognizing that they are just that. Opinions. My perceptions. Different than others’ perceptions. Different, not less. Different, not greater. The possibility that for everything you hold true, the opposite could also be true is the light after the internal storm, when that new possibility shifts your world view just a hair and then clicks. It’s the key to staying open and vulnerable to the world, so we can love each other a little better. I am really trying to stay more open, to listen, to learn from every person. I believe we are all teachers and students to each other.
Sometimes it gets pretty existential and dramatic in my head. It is at this point that I may just love Silence even more than the words. I sure wish I could bottle up the lessons I learn in the Silence and put them into words, but cé la vie – once that transient moment has passed and the goosebumps are gone, the words may come close, but they never quite do the experience its true justice. But I will keep trying. And in the meantime, sometimes it’s even better to just put the Silence into Action and do nice things for people. Sometimes I just need to get out of my head and go do something that makes someone else smile. Because the common thread of the Silence is always about Love…Here I go again with the words. There never seem to be enough. Here’s hoping some of my words connect with someone out there.