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By their very nature, words are specific. Some may have several meanings, different connotations, and minor shifts in feel depending on the context of their use, but, for the most part, “Table” never means “Chair” or vice versa. However, these are only words. If I live in a house occupied by only a table, I might learn to use it as a chair, or, perhaps, if I only have chairs, I may learn to use them as beds, shelves, and even company. This, though, is us.
Even in these circumstances, the chair remains a chair. The nature and essence of its name dictates its general form, typical function, and basic goal of existence. A “Thief“ may be many other things, but he is specifically a thief. It is not exclusive of other possibilities, like that of being a “good man,” but it is completely inclusive of a very specific one. This is language. It can include or exclude possibilities, results, outcomes, thoughts, qualities, all things and nothing with but a word. And, still, as definitive as language would have us believe it is, it is the single most misunderstood form of communication we use.
So, if words are so specific, how can there be so much misunderstanding?
On the martial arts mat, we try to standardize terms so that we can train on any mat around the world, generally speaking, adopting the terms of the art’s place of origin to describe concept and technique. Still, these vary from dojo to dojo: Did you mean same side grab or mirror side grab? And if “same side,” does that mean mirror side or right to right and left to left? Which is opposite to you? The list goes on, as each depends on the experience of the individual training partners, often on their lineage, in some cases, even a misunderstanding or falling out long before which lead to a desire to break from a specific tradition, and any number of other factors.
Similar things apply to our everyday communications. We stand on the peaks of very different experiential mountains and speak forth from them, expecting that the person standing on the next mountain-top over will be able to hear us clearly and will have the understanding of he who has climbed to the top of the same mountain using the exact same path… But it is not the same mountain, is it? If it was, we wouldn’t need to shout across the valley. So, when one person asks another, “Take my hand so I may practice,” while expecting to have a wrist grabbed, the other person might hear, “Hold my hand so that I do not fall,” taking his arm in brotherhood and support, but so steadfastly that the attempt at practice is quashed. That, of course, is my glass-half-full example of misunderstandings that can go so very awry.
Earlier today, I wrote an email to a friend:
“There are a lot of things sitting in both of your jars right now that avoidance will only make worse. All of those pebbles, boulders, and sand clogging up that jar are starting to settle and turn into cement, and then what? How easy do you suppose it will be to deal with them then?”
Those are the very rocks, and pebbles, and sand that build our mountains. Sometimes, they lead to fairly similar points of view, others to valleys and chasms of difference that seem unbridgeable, but always they mean that our every word runs the risk of being misunderstood. If I listen from a place of insecurity and fear to a message sent from a mountain of stability and self-assuredness, I am likely to hear a personal attack rather than see an opportunity to connect, to put myself in different shoes, to invite someone else to do the same. Vice versa, if I send a message of comfort from a peak of power and foresight to a place of sadness and dark, the message may be heard as pity or guilt, rather than a hand up, or a chin up, or even the offer of a smile.
It always amazes me, language: The way a single letter can make all of the difference in meaning, and how even the same word spoken by two different souls can be so disparate.