Monday, March 14, 2016

Language and the human spirit

Humans, to a degree unprecedented in the development of any other species, communicate symbolically, that is, humans have a distinctive linguistic capacity. Words are a form of symbolic reference: persons always employ a word – whether in speech, writing, or thinking – to point to something that is not identical with the word itself. In language, a set of rules (known as grammar) govern the combining of words to convey meaning. The universality of language among humans fuels scholarly debate about the existence of a deep, underlying grammatical structure, common to all languages.

Researchers from various disciplines, including biology, psychology, and linguistics, agree that the limited capacity for communication observed in some other species (e.g., apes and whales) does involve language and is therefore not symbolic communication.

The unique human linguistic capacity affects the human spirit in at least two important ways: construction of complex relationships and societies and the creation of narratives that provide interpretive frameworks for understanding the meaning of events and life.

Other species are social. Yet no other species has created a web of complex relationships comparable to human society. For example, DNA largely determines the social roles of ants and bees. Kinship ties are important for the social relationships of whales and apes. Humans are unique in forming communities that span huge geographic distances, endure over generations, permit extensive social mobility, etc. Language makes this possible. Without language, humans could not sustain meaningful relationships with other people over great distances or long periods. Nor could humans repair damaged or broken relationships. Similarly, language may explain the human tendency to anthropomorphize inanimate objects and forces, hoping to influence if not domesticate them by exercising power over them.

Extended solitary confinement is a crime against humanity precisely because the person so confined loses the ability to communicate with other humans. Human interaction – the symbolic communication enabled by our linguistic capacity – is an essential element of what it means to be human.

To date, no research indicates that any other species creates narratives that provide interpretive frameworks. Human consciousness exists only within such a narrative. Reading a novel (or watching an engrossing movie or TV show) is powerful precisely because the experience, at least temporarily, plants the reader (or viewer) in a world shaped by a different narrative. Without language, human culture would not exist. Indeed, Christian theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues that the Christian life consists of shedding the narrative of one's culture and living more fully into the Christian narrative.

Most broadly, developing one's linguistic capacity requires basic literacy, i.e., learning and improving one's ability to read and to write. Any effort or program that improves literacy, whether by enhancing one's mastery of one's native tongue or by acquiring another language, will expand one's linguistic capacity.

More narrowly, here are several spiritual disciplines that further develop one's linguistic capacity and that may permit you, after constructing a web of relationships and interpretations of life, to formulate a sense of self that complements your self-awareness and is central to your spirit:
  • Meditative reading – Read something theologically, religiously, ethically, or spiritually evocative, allowing the ideas to initiate or guide your thoughts rather than reading the material for content. Scriptures from various traditions (e.g., the Bible, Koran, Way of the Buddha, or Bhagavad Gita), daily devotional reading (e.g., the Anglican daily office or a guide such as Forward Movement's Day by Day), and literature that explores spiritual themes (e.g., Dostoyevsky's novels, essays by Madeleine L'Engle, and much poetry) similarly provide good options for meditative reading. The time-honored Benedictine practice of lectio divina began as a form of meditative reading.
  • Journaling – Keep a written record of your spiritual thoughts, feelings, and efforts. Construe the word spiritual as broadly as possible. Over time, your journal will begin to trace a narrative, to reveal a moving picture of its author's ideas, acts, feelings, and relationships deepening and changing. Preserving the confidentiality of your journal may help you to be more honest and open. Others may find that sharing their journal with a spiritual director or analyst is the best catalyst for both honesty and deep exploration.
  • Talk story, i.e., tell your narrative – Not everybody gravitates to the written word. The solitary process of writing affords the author an opportunity to formulate and then to examine thoughts and feelings. Telling one's story to another person(s) can function in much the same way with the added benefit of potentially receiving insightful feedback on what one has said. Honestly describing one's ideas and feelings requires great courage because the teller has made her/himself vulnerable to ridicule, perhaps even rejection. Conversely, that vulnerability is also a window of opportunity for potential growth, a deepening and refining of narrative through which one can experience the water of life more deeply.