your words = your world
‘On American reality TV shows they’ll sometimes interview a teenager about something that’s just happened to them on the show; perhaps this teenager has just finished eating a smoothie made of tropical insects, or perhaps they’ve just karaoked with Demi Moore. More often than not, these young people will say ‘It was so … surreal.’ This comes as a shock to me because these are people who can’t locate France on a world map or multiply 8 x 7, and yet here they are using the word ‘surreal’.
An essential part of our belief systems is the language that we use to perceive the world we live in. Our ‘real world’ is filtered through our language, and so our interpretation of reality is largely conditioned by it; Its structure, in turn, heavily influence the construction of our thoughts. Whoever knows more than one language will know this is true, as they will have probably assimilated different ways of expressing a concept through a palette of perhaps radically different adjectives and nouns.
Take the word love for example. In spoken english, ‘love’ is pretty much the only word used to express positive and caring affection towards a relative other. This may not be the case in other languages and cultures, to the point that the word love may lose meaning completely. In ancient times, the Greeks identified four forms of love: kinship or familiarity (in Greek, storge), friendship and/or platonic desire (philia), sexual and/or romantic desire (eros), and self-emptying or divine love (agape). Of course, culture as a whole influence individuals just as much as language does, so it would be a mistake to focus only on one system and forgetting about the context. Still, in today's globalised society, we have huge cultural differences and some of them could at least in part be attributed to language.
The concept of time is very poignant for this kind of argument, because it can vary from place to place. The Hopi of North America, for example, have been extensively studied for their particular ways of expressing time. Put it succinctly, the Hopi have no markers for present and past altogether. They endow a future-nonfuture tense system (Malotki, 1983). This has extreme consequence on the way this people live and perceive time, and consequently, life as we know it. Similarly, the Nootka of Canada divide the year in 14 months, count and understand numbers in a different way to western cultures.
This brief analysis leave us with the feeling that each way of representing reality through language is unique, but also, in a way, illusory. There isn’t right or wrong, because it is all somehow made up according to the needs of a specific milieu. This takes us to a very important conclusion, which is that reality itself is illusory in nature. As Anil Seth explains in his talk, ‘our perceptions are a kind of hallucination, but when we agree on our hallucinations, we call that reality’. Let that sink in for a second, this means that your reality can change as you change your perception of yourself and the world around you. This is crucial to understand if you are looking for a trigger to shuffle things around in your life.
Most times, when we have expectations that do not match our reality, we feel frustrated, angry, depressed. We feel as though we are unable to achieve anything. It’s very easy to fall into this trap nowadays. We are in constant need for validation from others and we forget what’s most important: believing in our own capabilities and working hard to make your desire reality. On the other hand, we project so much of our own lives and desires into the future, that forget about the achievements we reached this far. This may sound like a 'easier said than done' kind of thing, but if you trust yourself and believe in your own means, it is a fairly easy thing to do.
Personally, I consider myself to be a highly critical person. I tend to idealise certain aspects and/or people around me (not necessarily people I know). This makes my own efforts seem never quite enough. To make an impact on my own reality, I decided to stop complaining about my own limitations and issues in achieving a specific task, and rather use those limitations as a motivational spring to work around my methods. Slowly but surely, my effectiveness has increased and my mental wellbeing has also been positively affected by this. My thinking is shifting from a counterproductive commiserating system to a reflexive system. My words have morphed from 'why me?' to 'how can I avoid this next time?'.
Clearly, life is not always rosy. Obstacles will appear in your path, and they will perhaps hurt you and take you down. It will seem like you have nothing, but if and when you happen to be in this situation do not fear, because even when it seems like you have lost everything, you still have something, something more important than anything else, a simple choice between fear and love. You can choose to be bitter about your obstacles, or you can choose to be better of them.
Malotki, Ekkehart (1983). Hopi Time: A Linguistic Analysis of the Temporal Concepts in the Hopi Language. Trends in Linguistics. Studies and Monographs. 20. Berlin, New York, Amsterdam: Mouton Publishers.
Douglas Coupland (2014) Shopping in Jail: Ideas, Essays, and Stories for the Increasingly Real 21st Century