The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Language and Transformation

Language and Transformation

Exploring spiritual formation and creativity

The other week I was having a conversation with my mom about how language affects the way we think. There is a fascinating TED Talk about the nature of language that gives some context to this idea. Our languages are both an expression of the way we see the world and teach us something about how we can see the world. In creative pursuits, powerful moments of revelation come when we find language to describe what we are aiming for, experiencing, or have achieved. Additionally, the spiritual discipline of silence works to interrupt the habit of speech and language that we swim in for the sake of transformation.

One of things I’ve continued to test in my own journey is the idea that frameworks determine outcomes. Take a problem, say homelessness. If the frame with which we approach the problem is economic – a lack of resources, for example – the solution we will consider will be an economic solution. We will continue to measure solutions by the amount of resources we put into the problem. If the frame is relational, as my friend Kevin Adler proposes, then the solution is dramatically different as we see with his organization Miracle Messages. This is just one example of a problem with two different frames. There are many more problems in the world and many more frames. There are problems of poverty, human dignity, violence, and more. There are frames that approach these problems from an economic, social, spiritual, racial, ethnic, biological, or psychological perspective, and more.

Before I go any further I need to be clear and say that I am not saying that anyone of these frames is right or wrong. Rather what I am exploring here is that knowing the frame that is being used is imperative if we want to be aware of our own thinking, discover new ways of approach, interrupt destructive patterns of thought and action, and come to a new way. Thinking about frames is a way of thinking about our own thinking, and thinking about our own thinking is the beginning of change.

An Example

In some of the circles I find myself in, there has been a trend to frame many problems we face with the idea of trauma. Traumatic events are profound and deeply affect our formation. This framing is exceptional in honoring the past pains of a person or people. It also begins to inform possible remedies, as we find in trauma-informed healing practices. Both of these aspects of the frame are beneficial especially when compared to the opposite notion. Imagine coming to support someone without honoring their past pains or being considerate of them when thinking through possible healing practices.

On the other side, the focus on trauma centers the experience of pain as the reason a person or people group are where they are and more importantly who they are. As with any frame, if this centering is sticky there is the likelihood of the person or people getting stuck in the focus on the trauma and not the actual healing process. In the same way many can become wrapped up in defining themselves by their personality type, enneagram, or astrological sign, one’s traumas can become their defining characteristic.

Deeper, we tend to naturally organize our lives around our defining characteristics. We build patterns that are defined and defended by these characteristics. We might easily see this in the way work and jobs can shape our lives. But it functions in the way we think as well. How we speak can give insight into the way we think about our defining characteristics, and by extension, the organization of our lives.

I once offered the exercise of Dallas Willards Four Great Questions of Life to a coaching client to experiment with. The first question, the answer to which frames the rest, is, “What is real?” That is, what is the core reality of the world around us. My client had a few different answers, but one of them was “pain.” Can you imagine an entire world and world view in which the governing reality is pain?

Again, I’m actually a supporter of trauma informed therapies, and am not into the kind of positive psychology that denies the reality and formative nature of pain. That said, I’ve been thinking a lot about how this kind of framing affects us. If there is benefit in a particular frame, I want to see it and use. And if there is danger in a particular frame, I want to be aware of that also so I can dodge it.

What About Language?

The adoption of a framework comes with the adoption of language. It also works the other way. The adoption of language comes with the adoption of a framework. They both go hand in hand. That may be one reason why we see battles over language. What is behind that is actually a battle over the ways of seeing the world the language presents. The connection between language and framework is a good thing and not to be picked apart or deconstructed. It is good that language is attached to the way we think and can express it. This allows for two significant things when it comes to the pursuit of transformation.

On a personal level, we can listen to ourselves – our thoughts and our words – for how we are thinking about something. What is behind that thought or word? Some thoughts and words might be remnants of past habits that we are still working out. While some may be evidence of new habits in the process of forming. There is an idea that out of the excess of one’s heart (that is the will of the person) the tongue speaks. Giving ourselves permission to speak freely and identify this excess is a powerful way to see what is at work within us.

Secondly, on a communal level, we can observe and be mindful of shifts in language, understanding that they do signal possible shifts in ways of thinking. This is one of the reasons that generations of parents become defensive and fearful when their teenage children begin to speak differently. For longer than recent history, shifts in language and expression in general (think music and fashion) have been signals of a shift in identity in communities. In our time, the shift in expression may just be a new way of expressing the same underlying values, but that is not always the case.

In both cases, the realization that something is happening that we may not want, can be a thing. There is at least one thing we can do in both cases that I have found to be beneficial. It is to become explorers rather than judges. Instead of being reactive to language that is coming out of ourselves or our community (however dramatic or simple), leading with correction first, a spirit of curiosity offers a different way. If we lead with curiosity, we will find ourselves in unknown territory. That’s kind of the point. We will find ourselves closer to ourselves or our community than we ever have been before as we ask, “What might be behind that?” The simple act of asking can bring people together. The willingness to listen to those speaking – even if it is us – is the gift.

Closing the Loop

There is one more thing to mention to close the loop on our example framework from earlier. That is, if we find a trend in language that pulls our focus toward a part of life that is inherently destructive – like fear or pain – we can do something to initiate a shift. One of the best ways I’ve found is to pull language in from the other direction. For example, if I have plenty of language around how trauma works, maybe I need to work on my language for how love works, too. If I have plenty of language around how the brain works, maybe I could use some language around how the body or soul work, being other parts of the person. This kind of balancing ensures that any single framework doesn’t take over our entire being. That is unless it is the frame that you want to use to organize your entire life.

At that point we should be testing those ideas thoroughly. Our lives are worth the time and effort it takes to work out how we think and the language we use.

The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.
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