By Schneur Schusterman
Life can be viewed through many different perspectives. Through the lens of religion, politics, ideology, mysticism, relationships, or even through no lens at all. All are valid ways to understand the world.
I’d like to provide another lens: the lens of language.
What is language? Essentially, it’s just communication between people. And how do you learn a language? You start by learning the basic alphabet, and, after getting a grip of that, learn basic words. By creating basic words through letters, you start to master the alphabet. From there you form basic sentences conveying small ideas, and you start to master the basic words. By now the letters have become your second nature.
After mastering the basics, you build exponentially. Over the years you write paragraphs, mastering the sentence. Paragraphs become essays, and essays turn into papers. At this point, you realize that the basic sentences are natural to you now. Using the same basic sentences you mastered, you can write the most complex ideas, such as poetry.
To say it again, more simply. Learning a language is a process of using something simple (letters), to build something basic (words), which you can use to build something more complex (sentences) until a certain point. At this point you’ve mastered the basic things so much that you can be free to do with them what you want.
This process is universal. You can view the world as follows: everything you do or don’t understand is a language. What you don’t understand, with the right amount of opportunity and effort, can be understood.
If you ever ask a writer, artist, or musician how they make their art, they might give you an answer, but more likely they’ll try to find the nearest exit because they aren’t sure themselves. Artists have very personal routines and trying to communicate something so personal can be difficult. When trying to communicate how they did these things, they’ll say a version of, “I just did it” or “It just came to me.” I think that viewing these arts as language helps explain their process.
The art that artists share is a speck of all the art they create. Every time they practice, every time they sit down to write, they develop their vocabulary in their language. Artists spend years just to be free to express themselves using the simple vocabulary of musical notes, words, or paint. They too went through the simple and basic steps to get to the complex piece of art that caught your eye. So when they say it just came to them, it really just came to them. In the same way you didn’t think about the function of each letter in the word “them” while reading it, the artist didn’t think about the function of the tools they used to create their art.
If art is a language, no wonder it’s hard for the songwriter to communicate how they wrote the melodies for their single. No wonder it’s hard for the artist to explain the process behind creating their portrait. It is as natural to them as speaking or writing in your language is to you.
I’d like to bring a different and more complex example. Judaism. I think that Judaism can be seen as a language of meaning. You have to learn the basic letters, which in this case, I would think, are the stories and simple lessons passed down by tradition. Once you have a basic grasp of these you participate in activities based on these like lighting a Menorah on Chanukah or having a meal on Friday night for Shabbos. Once you’re familiar with this “vocabulary,” the language of Halakhah (Jewish laws) is available. And once familiar with that, the language of Chassidus becomes accessible. I believe that through honestly using and building the language of Judaism, you can “connect” to the fundamental oneness of everything (or “God” if you prefer), in the same way that you connect to another person by having conversation with them, or by seeing their art, or listening to their music.
A more grounded final example: the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the MTA. You’re waiting at 96th street station and see that the 1 train is delayed. Think about all the parts that went into causing that delay. It could be that the tunnels flooded the night before, and now the MTA workers are clearing them of water to get the train running again. How do the MTA workers know how to do this? They’ve learned the language of the tunnels. The MTA needs to get water out of the tunnels, so they send out workers to do that. This is an incredibly complex task which can be viewed as a story. The workers are both words and poets.
They are words in the sense that they are a part of the story entitled “how the MTA got the trains running again.”
They are poets, in the sense that they can use their training and work experience (their intimate knowledge of the language of the tunnels), to get the water out (produce a complex sentence in that language).
Thinking about this situation through the lens of language doesn’t change the fact that the delay is an inconvenience. I find that if I have a second to think while waiting in the station, that thinking about this situation as poets speaking the language of the tunnels makes it fun and romanticizes it, even if just for a moment. Thinking about things through the lens of language can be a way of finding something pretty in a dull situation.
In the MTA example someone might say that these aren’t languages, these are systems! While that is true, I think that the language perspective humanizes these systems. It’s not that water was brought out of the tunnel and the train got moving again, it’s that some people got up that morning and used their language to help you get moving. It’s not that a bunch of soundwaves entered your ear canal, it’s the powerful voice of your favorite singer expressing themself. It’s not just eating some food on an arbitrary calendar date, it’s a meaningful Shabbos meal.
I don’t think seeing everything as a language is the best way to look at and think about the world. I think it’s a good way. I think it’s a human way. And I like things that are good and human.