Our language liberates us, elevates us some would say, from the reactionary and instinctual responses of other animals to their environments. Because we can speak the names of the people, things, and circumstances around us, we can navigate our way through them with less attention paid to their shapes, sizes, smells, or potentialities for benefit or harm. We can relegate the warm and flesh-like whorl of magenta petals, and the sweetened air above them to a single word, “rose,” and move our attention quickly to the soft and moving hum behind and above us, “bee.” But, in doing so, we are likely to miss the yellow-gold dust spread so slightly in the center of the magenta whorl; and almost certainly miss, unless we are willing to wait, without motion, for the bee to land, the several motes of that dust which cling to four of the six bee’s legs folded aerodynamically against its body.
We might even miss, because we know those few words, and the relatively few meanings that connect with our individual experiences of “rose” and “bee,” learning more about each of them. We might not take the time, or need to take the time, to experience more about the space between the bee and the rose. We might feel no urgency about the Mystery of magenta itself, or the Attraction of the rose’s scent to both the bee and ourselves. And wherefrom does that odor arise, anyway? And what else can we hear that harmonizes with that hum?
The words themselves, like the very words I am writing at this moment, are metaphors, agreed upon collections of sounds, sounds that are familiar to us and allow us to represent in minimally convenient ways, a whole flurry of color, sound, pageantry, and experience. We agree, you and me, to encapsulate our individual experiences from the past of “rose” and “bee” into the common ground of those single syllable sounds. We are communicating, but we are not- not yet- learning anything new about either being. We are liberated by our language from groping anew each time there is a need to, for some way to share our experiences. And, indeed, we are elevated from merely reactionary responses to our environments; we can tell someone else quite nicely, even with those inadequate words, not to poke at the bee, and to be careful of the rose’s thorns. (Why the stinger? Why the thorns?)
But if we are satisfied by the mere words, if the words themselves stop us in any way from wondering why? how? if? when?, then they have become impediments. If we allow the words, the metaphors, to stop us from knowing more, seeking more, desiring more, then they are doing us a disservice.
The scoop on words
Words for God
are like our words
for ice cream: sweet,
But when I open
my mouth to pray,
I don’t want
words to hold
–Cynthia Yoder, in A Cappella, Mennonite Voices in Poetry, University of Iowa Press