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How To Mean What You Say

A conversation at a Christmas party this week sent me back to a book of essays by Owen Barfield entitled The Rediscovery of Meaning. My mind kept going back to this title, and I like it for several reasons: it affirms that there is meaning out there, and this meaning has at some point been known, has been discovered. It also implies that meaning has, at least to some degree, been lost. And it also holds out the hope that that meaning can be found again.
I find the discovery of meaning everywhere these days, watching my children learn language. I marvel each day as my sons suddenly come up with increasingly complex sentences that communicate new layers of meaning, and it often seems as if I can see them grow in their understanding of meaning even from day to day. I am fascinated to see the metaphors that they come up with–a limited supply of vocabulary and meaning forces them to be creative in their expressions. When they try some new food, I will frequently ask them what it tastes like, just to see what analogy they will come up with. For children, the world is a place bursting with new meanings, and if my sons are any gauge of children in general, it is a joy to learn and glean such precious things; my sons are thirsty to discover meaning.
But as we become familiar with language, it becomes stale–we use our words so much and so often that we become deaf to the pure meaning and deal only in symbols. My sister, who teaches art, and I have had many conversations about how so much of art (and life) is simply learning to see correctly, to actually see what is there in front of you instead of seeing a symbol of something. When she has her students draw a portrait, she has to teach them not to just mindlessly draw in “an eye”–generally the same eye they have been scrawling since they were a toddler–but to actually follow the shapes and lines that they see in the face they are drawing. It’s incredibly difficult. I see this also in calligraphy–when drawing the letter “a,” it is painfully hard to keep your mind from slipping into simply seeing the symbol “a,” and really seeing the unique, specific “a” that you are imitating, with its particular curves and edges. Our minds quickly slip into seeing in generalities, and the specifics fade into a distant blur.
This happens particularly with metaphors. We deal so often in metaphors that they become “petrified,” as Barfield puts it, and we cease to see the actual picture they refer to and they instead devolve into mere abstractions. Or to put it another way, we cease to take our own metaphors seriously. I found myself doing this recently: when speaking to a good friend of mine, I referred to him as my “brother.” I did this consciously, and deliberately, because it is true that we are brothers in Christ, but mostly because for me it communicates a sense of closeness and friendship. Thinking about it later, I realized that although it is right and true for me to call him my brother, I don’t actually imagine him as my brother when I say it. I have three brothers, who are all very special to me, and my love towards them has a very particular feeling. What would happen, I wondered, if I took my own words seriously and actually engaged my imagination to truly see him as my brother–how would that change how I treat him? How might it change how I treat a total stranger, who is, in many ways, also my brother? What would happen if I rejected the Modern schism between the spiritual and the physical, the literal and the metaphorical?
There is a danger in becoming so familiar with language, especially religious language, that our words become mere symbols–symbols divorced from their meaning. It is my hope that as I get older I might imitate my children, and so begin to rediscover the vast trove of meaning that I possess but have not examined. It is the only way that I see to come close to saying what I mean, and really meaning what I say.

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