I am learning to mistrust parts of myself. For example, a knee-jerk reaction of understanding. I get that sometimes when I hear or read something. It clicks and it makes so much sense! So I stop thinking about it and move on to something else.
Yet later I try and explain it and struggle to put it into words. To my chagrin, this happened to me the other day when I tried to explain to a friend a book I recently read. After a couple minutes of struggling with words, I sort of circumscribed the meaning of the book. He got the idea of what I was talking about- maybe. Maybe he just wanted me to shut up about it already. But it got me thinking- did I really understand the book before I had to explain it?
The common wisdom goes that teaching is the best way to learn something. I think this is true. And I'd also say that in general, creating any kind of output is understanding. To be able to explain, verbally, or in writing, or in any kind of medium, forces us to organize our thoughts and understand.
This is why journaling is a powerful practice for understanding ourselves and our current struggles and decisions. Our thoughts swirl around, unquestioned and unexamined in our minds. We lack the discipline, the attention span, or the psychic means to wrestle with them adequately while they remain formless in our heads. They are like ink in a pen: ambiguous, unused, untapped, dark, messy.
We put our fluid thoughts to paper and suddenly the ink means something. We can understand it and examine it. The thoughts crystallize into something solid and graspable. Thoughts and emotions that weren't clear before because they were unnameable have now been named. Our fear of the unknown has been vanquished by using one of the first explicit gifts God gave to Adam in the story of creation: the power to name things. Perhaps this was a biblical shorthand for the hard-won ability or gift to communicate, period. Increasingly complex communication implies greater understanding and greater ability to manipulate and utilize our surroundings.
Speaking and writing implies naming, labeling, sorting, relating. To be able to say, "the bird is in the tree", we have to know what a tree is, what a bird is, and what it means to be in something. If we understand that we probably understand a whole host of other concepts: leaves, branches, wings, flight, birdsong, climbing trees, shade, and fruit to name a few. We have to understand what we're communicating about and how they relate to one another and to ourselves. So to be able to communicate about something requires understanding. And nature doesn't do anything it doesn't have to- call it laziness or efficiency depending on your mood. If we're not applying understanding (i.e. through communication or action) chances are we don't actually have it. Which makes the years we waste learning unapplied theory in scholastic or academic settings quite criminal.
Writing in particular implies understanding, more so than speaking, because of the permanence of the written word. Spoken words float through the air and disappear and can't easily be re-examined and pondered. Words spoken to another can't be unspoken. But paper can be trashed and ink crossed out. Drafts can be refined to slowly give birth to screaming, wailing gifts of insight.
To return to the idea of journaling. Many times I have been overcome by a particularly terrifying yet ambiguous emotion. I write about it, trying to understand it and its psychic hold on my being. Yet as soon as I observe it, name it, and understand it, I sap it of its power. Often it is the ambiguity of a thing that enervates and demoralizes us. Terrorism is so terrifying because of that same un-namedness. We lack the certainty of an enemy. But once we knew that Al-Queda was behind 9/11, rage and anger replaced most of our fear.
Indeed, military strategists have long recognized that the formless enemy cannot be effectively countered and defeated. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu writes:
"Thus when someone excels in attacking the enemy does not know where to mount his defense; when someone excels at defense, the enemy does not know where to attack. Subtle! Subtle! It approaches the formless. Spiritual! Spiritual! It attains the soundless. Thus one can be the enemy's Master of Fate."
A thought or emotion that is written and thus understood can be grappled with and either employed or dismissed, just as an enemy's who's form is known can be outmaneuvered and subdued. Through writing, we cease to become dominated by our errant thoughts and emotions and instead become their Master of Fate, and the Master of Fate of our own minds and of ourselves.
Yoda would agree: “Named must your fear be before banish it you can.”
Writing, more so than speaking (again due to its permanence) gives each of us the opportunity to take part in the conversation about our shared reality. Writing is understanding, but that understanding is also in itself a form of creation. A tree is sharply defined. A weeping willow is even more sharply defined and in being described as such permits that much more associations, memories, feelings, and identifications (the somber, dark weeping willows behind my Grandfather's house- eerie at night, ringed by wet, thick mud). The more precisely we can define something in our conversations (written or otherwise) the more meaning and relevance it evokes.
The insights about ourselves and the world that we panned out of the ambiguous, inky morass of our minds- did they exist in there before we wrote or vocalized them? Or did the very act of experimenting with possibilities and nuances actually create them? In an active dialogue, suddenly it becomes co-created by multiple parties- creating the possibility for human connection, collaboration/conflict, and engagement. It creates the possibility for community.
By speaking up or writing out about our understandings, we take an active role in the societal conversation that shapes our reality rather than placidly accepting the ideas and interpretations constantly bombarding us from all corners. In this case, silence is consent. We permit that the views of our peers, or of corporations, or of the government, or of some expert become our de facto reality rather than even raising the possibility that other perspectives and understandings may be at play. This isn't an excuse to bombastically parade one's opinions as fact but rather to engage in an active conversation about what is, may be, and could be. And in the ensuing conversation, those possibilities are honed and refined the way an insightful thought coalesces from the frenetic fog of our minds. Perhaps not exactly right, but good enough to use for the time being, a useful approximation similar to Newton's classical physics, a model good for all but very small and very large systems. We can always perfect our model later- let's just get one that works better for now. And the only way a model gets better is through feedback, testing, trial and error.
Spoken conversations have a place in all of this, of course. Sometimes we understand wrongly, or incorrectly, or incompletely. Our model is incorrect. Good conversation implies feedback and is a chance to try our understanding out with one another. The feedback is more immediate and visceral than in text. I do not mean to imply the superiority of one medium over another for all cases, only to highlight that each one is appropriate in different contexts.
If I were to end with a blanket statement, however, it would be that communication means co-creation. By communicating with honesty and integrity in whatever medium is most appropriate at that moment, we are crystallizing our understanding and using that as a bridge to connect, understand, conflict, in short, to engage. That engagement is the conversation that we all use to co-create our experience in this world with one another.
Dillon Dakota Carroll
...sees much and knows much