Back in my fourth year of university, a buddy and I would often go out for a beer after a night of studying, as a reward so to speak, and on one such night, as we’re walking along in the dark with those faint yellow lights they use to light the U of A campus, I turned to my friend and I said, “why do we have language?” and he kinda looked at me funny but not like I’m completely crazy ‘cause he was used to hearing these kind of questions from me and knew they must have come from somewhere so he says, “well, when we get to the bar, how else are you going order a beer and maybe some cheezies to go with it.” And I nodded my head because his answer had been so ridiculously straight forward and commonsensical but it really wasn’t what I meant at all.
You see, I’d recently become interested in Zen Buddhism and meditation and clearing the mind of all thought and so, I wondered, if peace of mind is achieved by clearing the mind of all thought, why have language at all? After all, language is the conduit of thought. Right? I can’t ever remember having a thought without words attached. I took a university course that was based on the premise that for us to be aware of something, there has to be a word for it. When I expressed this idea to my son, he argued with me for the remainder of the ten-minute drive to his apartment. What about babies and toddlers? What about my dog or that bird eating the food on the feeder? Aren’t they aware of stuff without words being attached to it? And I would have to agree except for one proviso. Without words, I can’t communicate it to you?
As a social animal, words basically frame how we see ourselves and others. How depressing right? The conscious animal. With words, we are able to formulate an image of ourselves apart from ourselves. We can imagine an existence without our existence. If only I'd done it differently. If only I could go back. What if I were him or her? What if I’d lived in a different time or in the future? We can imagine an existence where, particles exist, disappear and appear again and then use ideas that prove their existence to create transistors and then the computer that I am typing on. Words gave us communism and democracy and capitalism and the store that I buy all the shit that system makes possible.
But, I think sometimes we forget that people make words, that they don’t exist outside of our use of them, that they are what give us our image of the world, like being on a ship and only being able to see what’s visible through the window of the cabin we inhabit. Lots of stuff may exist on the other side of the ship but we’re not going to see it ‘cause we’re not sitting on the other side of the ship. It’s the same with words. They’re like the porthole on a ship. My daughter finds the joke, “ i^2 keeping it real" incredibly funny. I mean, what the fuck. However, if you happen to know that i^2 is an imaginary number, you might get the humour.
I don’t believe I discussed the power of the word with my buddy that night but I did try to explain the meaning of existentialism to him. He thought it was stupid and obvious and I kinda agreed.