I don’t trust words. That’s a peculiar thing to say for somebody that writes books, poetry, and blogs. Or one whose profession is the hearing, reflection upon, interpretation, and commentary on speech is dependent upon them. I love words, their sounds, how they create pictures, sounds, smells, memories, future fantasies in our minds when arranged in particular ways. I love the picking and choosing of them when writing, collecting beads from an endless variety of materials and creating bracelets and bangles for specific occasions.
But I don’t quite know what a word means when you use it and I am not sure you understand me when I use mine. I don’t suggest that dictionaries are not useful or that I don’t recognize a hammer or a chair. For practical purposes with definite labels for tasks and things and people and places, we can agree for the most part on what is meant, where to go, how, and with whom.
But writing or speaking of love or justice, freedom and health, pain, spirituality, just about any abstract noun, I’ll nod my head to be agreeable. After all, much conversation is simply relating as chimps groom, we hold hands, children play, birds twitter, dogs bark. It feels good to be connected with beings like us who like us.
When we use words in serious matters, on the other hand, in therapy, law, politics, conflict, medicine, I want to be quite clear that what we speak of is jointly pictured and truly understood. What you call yelling, I may call a tense or raised voice. And we might argue about that! What I claim as spiritual, you may think of as just mind play. What you label as an 8 on pain, for me night be 3. I try to have people give me “behavioral definitions” as if I were a fly on the wall. Describe to me what you do differently if you have greater self respect or how you behave if you feel “sick.”
Even such things as high or low, good or bad cholesterol numbers, what does that actually mean for my well being and what are the odds and probabilities of downsides. If I am twice as likely to die of x because I do y what is the likelihood of my x and y in the first place? At my age, will x make a difference and what kind?
The ambiguity of language and meaning is why it is important for us to collaborate fully with our chosen care providers. If they ever say or suggest anything whose purpose or meaning I do not understand, I “pause” immediately to clarify. My intent is to share, not delegate, responsibility for my “treatment,” fully acknowledging the uncertainty that is so often present.