Are You Your Words?
Think of a particularly sad moment in your life. It doesn’t matter how far ago, or wether the wounds are healed, just connect with that particular event. As the thoughts grow in clarity and the pictures become real in your mind’s eye, notice that there is a narrative that goes along with it. Perhaps the narrative is the dialogue taking place between you, and the people around you, or maybe it is a conversation you heard. Perhaps the narrative isn’t an actual conversation at all, but just your own transcription of the events – like you are the narrator of the event, noting the facts and telling a story around the facts. You are experiencing words shaping the event. Words define who we are. There is no separation between the interpretation of what we see, even in our memory or our imagination, and the words we use to describe the event. We could have done the same exercise with a happy, memorable event, or a neutral time. The fact is we interpret our experiences, past, present and future with words. And, so it isn’t a far removed idea to state that perhaps we are our words, nothing more, nothing less.
I heard this statement for the first time while attending a ten-day Leadership Training in Bermuda. Michael Jensen and Werner Erhard, leading that session of the training, and who have also together written an extensive paper on Integrity, were emphasizing that words, and the precise definition of words, define our level of integrity in the world. And, if we are out of integrity, it is not as if our word can ever be separate from who we are. In this case, they also include words, as ‘in actions speak louder than words,’ or, body language. We are our words. If we take this statement and for a second, accept it as being true, even if we are not yet convinced, the first thing we cling onto is that, we are ok then, because we haven’t lied. But then if we expand this notion of us being our words, then it is obviously more than just what we tell others; it has to include that that we tell ourselves, our own internal dialogues, and the narratives we use to transcribe past, present and future events. And, if we stay with this a little longer, we see that the narrative of our lives is the undercurrent of our actions. We can then see, that when we act not in alignment with our ‘intentions’ we are acting in accordance with this narrative and it is shaping who we are, and what we create.
Words are so powerful that we are told in the bible: “in the beginning, was the word.” In Hinduism, OM, that that we chant in yoga classes, is the echoing of the spiritual or sacred vibrations incarnated in sound. Words are in fact what separates us, human beings from animals, and the complexity of language is proportional to the complexity of our understanding and definition of our environment. The more complex our understanding is, the more complex language becomes. We create symbols and words to explain new ideas, discoveries, natural and man made events and technologies. When a word is first evoked we may try to fit the understanding of this word with everything else we already know, until we are able to create, from a linguistic abstraction, just a concept, an actual understanding – the realization of words into things.
So, as I contemplate the beginning of a new year, the word becomes the focus of my undivided attention. In particular, the words of the narrative of my life – this on-going film that is projected within, and eventually realized without. If I am my words, and I accept this fully, then I choose to create a narrative that generates life within me. This is a generative process, the words that create life. It is future based, not conditioned based. “Future-based language is generative in its ability to invent what didn’t previously exist.” ~ Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan (The Three Laws of Performance)
Generative language produce aliveness and it is simply the choice of words that accompany the tapes of my life’s events. I love to actually see a narrator, on a microphone, watching these scenes in a movie screen – these scenes being my life’s scenes, and then narrating it such that the way it is being described emphasizes possibility and creation. What I see then is a narrative that is, at times, so drastically different that the one I often use with the same scenes. Looking at it this way, I feel a detachment to my story – if anyone can narrate this scene and the narratives can all be so different than why am I choosing this one, and why would I care about defending it? It seems all of a sudden, just plain silly.
When I use this concept to teach that there is a BIG distinction between the stories we tell about facts, and the facts themselves, the best way to understand that is to watch your own narrative. In the Buddhist tradition this is about stepping aside and witnessing the voice, being a witness to the self, and in Western psychology this is the observer self – the one who sees, observes. What we must observe is the narrative not the facts, because the narrative defines the facts. I will write this again – the narrative defines the facts, not the other way around. You are not describing what you see, what you see is being shaped and colored by the words you are using.
So, let’s bring this to a landing. How can we use this understanding – that we are our words, to improve our lives and the lives of others? If you take my analogy of the narrator, then your task is to observe this narrator and watch carefully the words being used by her to shape your understanding of life itself. If we practice witnessing that, over the course of our days we will become less and less attached to the story being narrated, because we will also notice that the narrator is not the event – he is just the narrator. If you want, you can replace the narrator, and if you don’t replace the narrator, even when you know you can, then you have to grow into a realization that your choice of words is what is shaping your life, not the events. And, you are making that choice. You may say, wait a second, what if what I see is my 5-year old self being sexually abused, how does this fit in? You have to test it for yourself – what is the narrative you are observing being told, what does the 5-year old narrator say? What does your adult version say? What would a different narrator, the one who knows generative, life giving language, would say? The versions of the event are endless, and it is only your attachment to a certain version that will keep you there, not the event itself.
I do not preach that all things in life are fair or good, or that there is a generative version on everything. I do, however, know that when we change the narrative, the event changes, and the actions I take today, transcend the past, the present time condition, and even the default future I may be living into. I choose a narrative because I certainly have come to believe that, in fact, I am my words.