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Essay: Words fail me

Sebastian Partogi

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Mon, October 15, 2018  /  08:14 am
Essay: Words fail me

Words failed me, not just orally but apparently also in writing. (Shutterstock/File)

Reading and writing voraciously does not make me smarter; after several years it has made me dumber.

I spend probably 10 to 15 hours daily writing and reading, at work and at home because I am a recluse by nature. Recently, I had difficulties formulating my sentences properly — in both Indonesian and English — when I talked to people. I had frequent “tip of the tongue” incidents whereby I tried to retrieve a particular word or phrase and say it but somehow failed to do so.

Words failed me, not just orally but apparently also in writing. My sentences became convoluted. I could not come up with the right syntax. I left gaps in my sentences: no matter how hard I tried to remember the important details.

And then, I started confusing one letter with another. I could not differentiate “a” with “o”, “r” with “n”, et cetera. An editor at a big publishing house, who also spends 10 to 15 hours daily reading and editing texts, said he had this strange experience whereby more than once, his dizziness and headache caused him to see the text moving up and down the Microsoft Word document by itself, as if being animated by an invisible hand.

Another person, who had just kick-started a career in a media company, said she was surprised how her fellow journalists wander around hollow-eyed, as if they were zombies. I myself have to admit that a lot of times the onslaught of information that I am dealing with on a day-to-day basis has drained my energy, leaving no desire to even greet other people I pass by in the corporate compound. I am frequently too tired to even do that. My brain has been flooded by too many abstract images already.

How many of us have found it hard to express ourselves clearly, verbally? How many of us have found our minds being frazzled after spending too much time working with language, whether it is writing, translating, editing or delivering an oral presentation? No, it is not a complaint; all of us have apparently faced this no matter how much we enjoy what we do.

Language, to paraphrase what author Michael Ondaatje says in his 1992 novel The English Patient, is difficult. Articulating it is even more difficult than playing the violin, the author asserts through his character David Carvaggio. Playing the violin is more difficult than playing the guitar, I can tell, because unlike guitars, violins have no frets delineating different tones. But at least when you hit the wrong note on the violin with your finger, you can tell right away that you have missed the mark. It is not the same with language; it is trickier to gauge whether you have expressed things clearly through verbal language because basically, verbal language is an abstract unification and simplification of multitudinous, concrete things.

Take the word “beagle”, for instance. Upon hearing that word, a picture of your pet beagle will probably come to mind, while I am imagining Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s pet who stands on his two legs, just like homo sapiens does.

Herein lies the paradox: verbal language helps us define things to navigate our lives easier but it can also be a trap — how can we reduce this complex and complicated experience called life into just a set of words?

This is why a lot of book-smart people are also prone to impose simple-minded labels (stereotypes) on other people. You might want to think, for example, that the liberal activists, writers and thinkers out there are more open-minded than who they label as conservative and narrow-minded right-leaning individuals — as if human beings can be distinguished into simply two extreme ends of a pendulum. But no.

I was shocked upon hearing one person, who puts himself proudly inside the “liberal” box, perhaps because he thinks it is a sign of high intelligence, saying casually that all religious people are idiots (he, too, is an atheist, not out of personal conviction but again because of this logical fallacy that believers can’t be smart people and he considers himself to be smart. Interesting, huh?).

These people, who like to present themselves as avid readers and open-minded thinkers so that the world will applaud their high intelligence, cannot help but be trapped in simple-mindedness. They are too enamored by empty rhetoric and intellectual discussions that they somehow neglect to allow their concrete life experiences mold them intellectually and emotionally.

Instead of recognizing that our life views and beliefs are malleable things that are subject to change over time, they instead have defined themselves either this way or that way (liberal, socialist, whatever), and in the end become trapped in the words and rhetoric that they keep repeating to themselves and others every day, through reading, writing and oral discussions. Instead of being open to views that are different from theirs, they increasingly live in bubbles, talking to like-minded people only.

This way, instead of seeing things clearly, they define things based on their own rigid and immutable a priori conceptual frame.

This also explains why certain people continue to treat others harshly and hurtfully despite writing and talking about human rights, freedom of expression and culture — highbrow topics — constantly. Because probably these concepts remain only abstracts in these urban intellectuals’ heads.

Our education system emphasizes cognitive learning so much that we memorize concepts in our minds without being able to connect them with some emotional and behavioral understanding — which is a shame since without doing that we would merely perpetuate empty chatter without really implementing what we say we believe in our day-to-day lives.

Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion ( 2013 ) also warns of this possibility, whereby the higher one’s education is, the more able he or she is to formulate abstract justifications for his or her own unethical or harmful actions toward others.

This does not mean that we have to stop learning, reading or engaging in intellectual discussions. Rather, instead of just indulging ourselves in endless empty chatter in order to appear smarter than others in a social setting, we should endeavor to also enrich ourselves with concrete, five-sensory activities. To leave the otherworldly realm of abstract concepts for a while and get in touch with earthy, grounded reality. This is especially healing for people who are assaulted by words and abstract concepts on a daily basis: writers, scholars and activists (that is, when they get trapped in too much ideology and not enough action).

A bonus for writers: these frequent breaks help us to return to our work refreshed, allowing us to better approximate our concrete realities with our words and minimize those errors, even though we can never completely represent concrete realities as they are through verbal expressions. But at least we are inching closer toward what reality looks like.

Now, I am getting preachy. Excuse me, but this is what engaging too much with highbrow ideas can do to you.

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