In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Toni Morrison said this.
We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Sometimes I’m so divorced from the meaning of my own swirling emotions that I can only access myself when I write or speak about it.
Language is never exact; it’s always an approximation of the experience it tries to convey. But I think when I narrate an experience, I can hold it still for a moment so I can get a good look at it. All my inner workings shift and spin constantly—yet if I can even capture their shadow, their imprint, the dust left by their wings as they flit past—well, it’s a clue.
Sometimes I engage words to identify a yearning. Sometimes I need to work through some shame or reflexive self-recrimination. Sometimes there’s a little creative idea in there that needs some attention so that it can wriggle its way up to the surface.
I don’t know if it’s like this for everyone, but my inner swirlings tend to calm down a lot once they’re identified. It’s often that simple. Once you can tell something its own name, it becomes a lot less needy.
Here are some recent swirlings I gave name to:
- I wandered off the track a little in my journey towards better health. I forgave myself. I accepted ongoing imperfection in myself. I kept walking forward.
- I notice that I miss Lila with my body lately, now that she’s out of the house sometimes. There’s a fierce longing to touch her skin, to feel her little monkey self against my big monkey self.
- I’m getting lost in the loop of frustration with my own inconsistencies. The shifting selves, which I wrote about recently, the many ways they disappoint each other.
The self-critical stories are the hardest to break without language. But with it, these great storms can wash ashore in gentle waves of self-forgiveness. I can only forgive them if I can see them.
This is why journaling helps. This is why therapy helps, or life coaching, or a long conversation with a good friend. Our experience can be baffling and tumultuous, and often, the only path to meaning is through language.
Morrison made it clear in her Nobel speech that she saw language as inexact representation too: “Language can never live up to life once and for all. Nor should it.”
In our relationship with our own subjectivity, in the internal worlds we each inhabit alone, language can create company. I see it as setting the stage for a conversation between experience itself and the representation of experience.
Everything we can do to slow down our own negative swirling is good. Everything we can do to make space around us is balm (see Rilke’s poem, below). Sometimes it’s pure stillness we need. But sometimes, when meaning is the precondition for peace, it’s language.
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