Loving language as someone who is trying to be spiritually aware is a funny thing. Many gurus will try to remind you that like with so much else in this life, language is just a construct. It’s hard to dispute that. And even people who love literature can attest to the famous Shakespearean quote, “a rose by any other name will still smell just as sweet.” So, is language just a system created by people to communicate? Yes. And is there any meaning behind these words? Also yes!
Language has power. Being intentional with your words is important. There’s a reason we feel happy when a parent says they feel “proud” of us and shares that they “love” us. Equally, words like “hate”, “betray”, and “mad” also carry weight. Sure these are all made-up words, and the meaning we derive from them is something we ascribe to them… But who cares? Sometimes the spiritual community takes the fun and emotion out of things without recognizing it. Maybe the purpose is to free us from all attachments and help us live in the here and now. But I think sometimes that message gets distorted and people walk away feeling pressure to dissociate from everything, which ironically makes them seem less connected to those around them, rather than closer.
Language is a beautiful tool to help share things that sometimes can never fully be expressed. But that very attempt is beautiful. Contrastly, it can also be a weapon used to harm people.
If you were the parent of a special needs child or you had a gay relative, how would you feel to hear both teens and adults alike constantly say “that’s so [fill in the blank]”. Do those people mean what they say literally? Usually not. But by pairing a word used to describe a human being with something negative, there’s an incredibly hurtful connection there. Think about it, the English language has so many words to choose from. When we feel frustrated, we can very easily say, “that’s so disgusting” or “that’s ridiculous”. We have the power to change the whole sentence around and say, “I can’t believe that – unbelievable!” Literally all of these expressions can verbalize a person’s disapproval of something. Instead, what do so many opt to do? We go for whatever seems most severe; something that stings. We choose words that rob people of their humanity and throw them around as insults. Suddenly, “that’s so…” becomes a breeding ground used to mock an already vulnerable person as if the word used historically to describe them is SO appalling that it’s the worst thing ever.
What about relationships? What’s the difference between “hanging out” and “dating”? Depending on who you ask, there might be no difference. However, the label sends a clear message. When you “hang out”, the implication is that you’re enjoying each other’s company without any commitment or expectation. When you “date”, there are often implications around faithfulness and a deeper sense of being there for each other. Neither is good or bad. But there’s definitely an impact here with the language. It’s why being “acquainted” with a person is a far cry from being “friends” with them. These words set the stage for the roles at hand – everyone knows where they stand… And this brings me to another subject: work.
We all have titles and within those titles, we have set expectations for what we are supposed to do. Granted, it’s true that a title will almost never do the ins and outs of our jobs justice. And roles can also evolve over time like everything else. But this label provides workers a general framework. We have images and values that pop up when we recognize a part of our job description involves “training others” and we may feel or have different connotations arise when we know that we must “serve others”. These distinctions matter.
I’m not advocating that we obsess over all these words. In my own life, I constantly have to catch myself doing three things. 1) word policing others – especially when they use words that are hurtful to marginalized communities, which has been a pet peeve of mine since high school. It’s good to point this out sometimes, but in my past, friends saw me as pretty militant here and while I was trying to help one group, I may have been hurting friends by assuming the worst. 2) I have to watch my tendency of forgetting that words do indeed evolve as situations do. Sometimes I can assume that if you tell me “no” for instance, it means “no” forever. But things aren’t cemented in stone. 3) lacking self-compassion when I forget to keep up with the changes, myself. We used to culturally say that people “committed suicide” for instance, but now, a term to show more respect tends to be “died by suicide”. I remember feeling defensive the first time this was brought to my attention. I thought society was being too sensitive and we were all now stepping into that word policing category. But I was wrong. Again, humans are on the other side of language. So, if you’re the mother of a person who took their own life and don’t want to hear they’ve “committed” some horrible act, I can make that effort to respect a change. With all change though, I’ll be imperfect and just as I hope to not pounce on others, I hope people will take a moment when I slip up and offer a gentle correction instead of an attack.
So with all of this said, I guess I feel strongly about this. Being on a spiritual journey doesn’t mean you have license to accept that since words are constructed, no mindfulness is needed – the opposite in my opinion should occur. If you have an awareness that these socially constructed words have meaning, it’s all the more important to be intentional with what you put out there in the universe. And again, this allows you to fully feel happy when you get to be “loved” or a “partner” or “skilled” at something. That’s all valid and feeling joy doesn’t mean you’ve become unhealthily attached to an arbitrary label – there’s something deeper beyond that all of those words are assisting you in accessing. Also, one more beautiful thing with words is that there’s something redeeming about them. Even if you choose poorly one day, you can correct it.* That’s why a word like “sorry” can be powerful if it’s authentic. So, no offense to Billy Shakespeare, but even if a rose smells the same no matter what you call it, I take pleasure in what we’ve all co-created. Let’s stick with “rose”.
*While editing this post, I thought back to a moment in the Harry Potter series where Dumbledore briefly discusses language and “turns” a phrase to completely change the impact of it. It’s definitely worth a watch: