The limitations of words and numbers

Today, I’m musing about written words and numbers. From our molecules and cells on up, we are more similar than we are different from animals. Written words and numbers set us apart from any other living creature on this planet. I have concluded this is a human gift and a human curse. The fruits of this gift are so big and numerous as to be invisible; the depth, breadth, and accessibility of information, our standard of living, life-saving, life-extending modern medicine and our technology–time-and-labor-saving devices of all sorts. The curse? Nature Deficit Disorder, miscommunication, and our ever-increasing estrangement from and unmindful treatment of our mother earth.

Monday, November 19th, 2012 was a HUGE day for me. My nine-month old grandson, Oscar, was briefly hospitalized and Reese Taylor Griffiths, my newest grandson, took his first breath. In the hospital, one of the pediatricians, upon learning that I was a veterinarian, stated, “working with babies is a lot like working with animals, because babies can’t talk.”

Animals and babies can neither write nor read. They do not have the ability to talk using words. However, they are able to communicate. If you and I were face-to-face right now, you would understand 93% of what I’m trying to say via a combination of the music of my voice and the expressions you would see on my face and from other body language.  Because you can read, you are “hearing me” here and now via the County Post East. However, you are receiving only 7% of the 100% communicated if we were in discussion together.

When writing about Nature Deficit Disorder, I wrote; “Words are not real. For example, can your thirst be quenched by the 5 letters “w” “a” “t” “e” “r”? No. Water is real and thirst quenching.” The 5 letters of our alphabet that represent water are abstractions–symbols that we have learned and use to convey something real.  During my training, as I struggled to understand the inner workings of a dog, a teacher of mine said to me, “Pete, the anatomy and physiology of a dog is not complicated. What is complicated is trying to capture the wonder of life using words and numbers.”

I have noticed that the moment I label or attempt to convert a beautiful image or experience to words, that moment disappears. It is exactly like what I have seen when an animal dies. The beautiful creation is alive, words are not. Creative wordsmithing, just the right words, can sometimes come close, but they will forever fail to bring that moment back to life.

What we humans now know scientifically, what we have accomplished–for example, putting a man on the moon using primitive technology–is because of abstractions. Words can comfort. Words can encourage us to do good and to have faith.  That said, words are inherently divisive by forcing dualism–yes or no, black or white, positive or negative. Life is not dualistic–not just black, not just white. Life is an almost limitless cornucopia of colors and hues that no writer or scientist will ever be able to capture in words and numbers.

There is no doubt, being alive in the year 2012 is to be living in a pivotal time in our history. Prior to the written word, history, stories, and legends were transmitted orally and face-to-face. Words that rhymed and could be put to music helped our ancestors to keep the stories from being altered from generation to generation. Words written on scrolls, and then (and now) in books, have assured that we today have access to texts of old. Seen through the lens of geological time, photographs, sound recordings, video recordings, the television and movies are a new thing.

As 2013 approaches, I am hopeful that the ease with which one can now record voice or video might ultimately be a good thing for humanity. Since 93% of communications between living people are conveyed via music and visual images, perhaps we will use our technological creations to better understand each other and to keep us awake and aware of our interdependence with every other living creature on this planet.

Published in the Waupaca County Post East newspaper, 12/20/12.





One response to “The limitations of words and numbers”

  1. Catherine Merrill Avatar
    Catherine Merrill

    My youngest son grew up creek crawling, rock and crystal and fossil hunting. His dad and I were joyful explorers of the natural world and still are, circumstances permitting. One of the gifts I gave Will”s teachers was always “Last Child Left in the Woods,” about the Nature Deficit Syndrome. Many of the worlds great problems will be solved when we all reconnect to the natural world, God speed the day. Walking and talking together is intimate, healing,, and motivating.

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