We are capable of great creative and regenerative actions, as well as destructive and futile ones. Many recognise the increased power of our creativity and destructiveness as stemming from the so-called ‘industrial revolution’, when we began, at an unprecedented rate, burning much of what had previously been the ground we walked upon and the forests whose air we breathe. Yet how we came to be the complex web of human society, technology and machinery we are today has roots in a much more subtle event.
Buckminster Fuller, in his exploration of the history of human culture, mentions the invention of technology as a key component in shaping our societies. Yet he also points out that ‘technology’ refers to any tool which we create for our use, and that the first piece of technology we ever invented was the first word (1).
Power of words
Just because one has a tool, does not necessarily mean one knows how to use it in the most beneficial way. Our words can shape, twist and bend reality; we have created abstract concepts and ideas and with this, extended the reach of our human influence far beyond our own sensing bodies.
From some angles, we can see that all of the destruction, disregard for other species and mismanagement of our own home, the Earth, which we engage in is the result of a single factor: our extraction of ourselves from the natural world around us. Such an idea of separation can only even be conceptualised by the kind of language which many modern cultures use – language which has lost its roots in the surrounding world.
As Abram (1986) comments on, much of animistic, metaphorical culture relies on a deep linguistic connection with the non-human world, whose ties can be seen as having been broken by the advent of phonetic and written language (3). For example, the English language is made up of phonetic sounds which have little or no direct connection to what Abram and others term the more-than-human world, and so we have a much higher tendency of taking literally those symbols which are always only ever meant to point to a deeper truth, rather than being the truth itself.
We can also use words to artificially separate ourselves into ‘nature’ and ‘humans’: a separation which is only possible in abstract thought and which when applied to our sensing bodies and the world around us does not make any sense at all.
Walls of Words
Having identified that our use of phonetic language is a key factor in our disregard for the more-than-human world, should we then stop using this most dangerous and powerful of tools?
Perhaps it would be better for the planet if our method of communication had stayed in total connection with the more-than-human world around us, and therefore we can feel more readily the tearing pain of the mountain being sliced into quarried rocks; the stifling horror of the toxins pouring into the rivers and oceans, or the senseless mutilation of the millions of chickens who are born and die in the same tomb, all too often for their bodies to simply become discarded.
Yet the fact remains that we have invented phonetic language, and with it, abstract thought and the idea that we can harm and kill the other living beings which make up our world without causing detriment to ourselves. As Ursula K LeGuin puts it,
“You cannot take things that exist in the world, and try to drive them back into the Dream—to hold them inside the Dream with walls and pretences.
That is insanity.
What is, is.
There is no use pretending now that we do not know how to kill each other”. (3)
When considering that the more-than-human world, or web of biodiversity, extends to include all, “each other” has a very broad definition. Yet to condemn our actions is to waste energy in trying to will into non-existence what is already here. This is the same whether we are talking about the global ecosystem, the human species, or each individual soul. When applied on a personal level we can see that if we attempt to deny or escape parts of ourselves which we do not like, we usually end up sooner or later being controlled by those same aspects.
Psychologist Jung conceptualised this as the idea of the “shadow self”: that part of us which we may not necessarily be aware of, have fear of, or actively attempt to get rid of (see for example 4). Yet if we are to have healthy relationships with ourselves and others it is beneficial to at least be aware of our shadows, even if we do not exactly make friends with them. For it is from the darkness that we can gain more light; by accepting what we are and what we do we can learn from it and evolve.
Darkness and Light
The conceptualisation of the world as a balanced equilibrium between the two forces which can be roughly divided into dark and light is present in many cultures, from the Yin-Yang of ancient Chinese philosophy to the Incan God Viracocha, whose tears of sadness at the suffering of the world are the very rivers and lakes which provide the nourishment for all life (5). We cannot have one without the other;
“Only in silence the word,
Only in dark the light,
Only in dying life:
Bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.” (7)
Acceptance and Action
In accepting and even embracing those aspects of ourselves and the world which seem repugnant we can reach a new way of perceiving where we regain lost connections. However, this does not mean that there is no point in trying to change what we see for the better. Whatever we feel we can do to improve the quality of life of those around us, both human and more-than-human, if we feel it is right then it should be done. Yet the only really effective way of creating these improvements is from a starting point that allows for all perspectives; or at least as many as you, with your one human body and mind, can cope with.
In this we need to become fully aware of our situation and the brilliant potential power we have to shape our own destiny, and therefore the destiny of the world around us.
Much of this power resides in the words we use. Perhaps we have not always used them in a way which is beneficial for us or those around us. The first way to change this is to become aware of how we use language. Are the words you use creating boxes and divisions in your mind, storing up emotions, or derogating yourself or other beings of the universe? If so, maybe we can think about changing the way we use them.
Words are indeed powerful tools; keys, if you like, to open the boxes and release all the power inside you. Words are not the only power. But if we wish to act together with other humans, using words in a conscious and considerate way will certainly be of some use.
Photo by David Ashwanden
- Fuller, Buckminster R, 1981. Critical Path. St Martin’s Press: New York City
- Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Random House: New York City
- LeGuin, Ursula K, 1976. Hainish Cycle No. 6: The Word for World is Forest. Tor Books: New York City
- Jung, C.G, 1938. “Psychology and Religion.” In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. P.131
- Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New World Library: New York City
- LeGuin, Ursula K, 1968. The Earthsea Cycles: A Wizard of Earthsea.