More words

Here is another blog post, with words in it. You can read it and decide what you think it means, but what it means for you won’t be the same as what it meant for me, because words aren’t thoughts or things but ways of describing thoughts and things – and however carefully we use them, we can only ever hope to make an approximate match with what goes on inside another person’s head.

At least, that’s what I’ve always thought. And I wasn’t alone: the sentiment has been expressed more eloquently many times by more original thinkers than me, including but not limited to Benjamin Franklin (“Words may show a man’s wit, but actions his meaning”), George Bernard Shaw (“Words are only postage stamps delivering the object for you to unwrap”), Voltaire (“One great use of words is to hide our thoughts”) and Albert Einstein (“I rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterward.”).

We all use words to hide our thoughts. Of course we do. If I’m asked a difficult question, or made to think about something that makes me uncomfortable, my instinctive response is to come up with an articulate, beautifully-composed answer that communicates precisely nothing at all, but has a joke at the end so I get away with it, at least for now.

So if language hides our thoughts, what is the use of, say, talking cures? Aren’t we just dancing around the reality of our existential angst when we sit on a sofa and pour out a stream of words to another person?

Well, maybe. But I had a conversation with a psychiatrist recently (not as part of a medical consultation), and he told me that for psychotic people, language is what shapes their whole world. All the confabulations, all the paranoid convictions that form the basis of the psychotic’s experience, are built from words. That’s why mad people talk to themselves, or hear voices: their alternate worldview doesn’t have its location in thoughts or actions or feelings or things, but in words. Isn’t that interesting, if it’s true, which it sounds like it should be? And the corollary of that is that words are more important than I think they are: that words can change the shape of our thoughts, rather than just inadequately expressing them. And if they can change the shape of our thoughts, they can change the shape of us.

All of this coalesced in my mind when I read a tweet by Dan the other day. He’d come up with a breautiful thought overnight, but couldn’t quite remember it:words are tools that rewire soulsAnd I thought yes, that’s exactly how it works. Language is much, much more powerful than my reductive analysis gives it credit for. My words may not express me, but they can change me. And they can change you – just not in ways that I can predict.

(I think that’s why poetry can be so powerful. The act of choosing the exact, the only, words that express your idea make misinterpretation more likely, but that in turn allows the reader to infer a meaning that is personal to them. Poetry is the most pared-down way of using words that there is, and sometimes the fewer words you use, the more you say. Which brings us back to where we came in, but via an interesting diversion.)