Writing is a testy occupation at best; writing on spiritual topics, in our opinion, is even more challenging. We always feel caught between the impossibility of expressing the inexpressible and feeling an intense urge to try anyway. At university Steven majored in Communications and Lee in Studio Art and Art History, both fields aimed at teaching students to express themselves as succinctly as possible. (Sorry about writing in the third person) However, what we really discovered is the endless barriers to communication that are innate to both language and art.

Language is no more than a collection of symbols with meanings that society consents to accept. The problems begin immediately since each of us has a slightly different idea of what that meaning is and we all filter what we hear through that meaning. If we say ‘apple’ we may be thinking of the Granny Smith apples we’d put in a pie,  but you may be thinking of a crispy Jazz or Fuji that you’d like to slice for lunch, or the ‘little green apples’ you stuffed yourself with as a child that made you sick.  Apple might make you might think of your computer, or if you’ve lived out in the country as we have, a horse dropping. Communication can be unclear even when we’re talking about something as simple as apples, but the water gets really muddy when we start to use words like soul, spirit, God, faith, belief, love, etc.

Language also works with the brain to lock our thinking into a pattern that’s difficult to change. It shouldn’t be too surprising that researchers have discovered the brain is in the survival business. Unfortunately the brain considers the status quo the safest place to be, and filters out anything that differs from its preferred thought patterns unless it finds an extremely compelling reason to change. As a result, many words that are actually poisonous to our spiritual awareness are tolerated by the brain because we’ve absorbed them without thinking about how they may be affecting us.  Hope is one of those words.

Hope is considered a virtue, but is it really? Hope is a gamble, a wish or a desire for something we have little real reason to expect. You’ve made reservations at the ski lodge but it hasn’t snowed and the weather man says it’s not going to. You can hope it will, and there’s always a slim chance it might, but hope is not going to make it happen. Hope is optimism gone astray, but it fuels many religions. We can easily waste a lifetime hoping for things that are unlikely to happen instead of discovering what we can really count on. And when we offer hope to someone else, have we really given them anything of value that could change their life? On the other hand, trust is based on the solid foundation of direct experience. Hope is something we can cling to effortlessly and mindlessly, but trust takes effort and risk since we must experience for ourselves in order to build trust. Trust gives us a life while hope sucks the life out of us.  

Another poisonous four letter word is ‘nice.’ Society expects us to be pleasant, agreeable, courteous and polite, but how many of us are sacrificing ourselves on the altar of nice? Nice behavior can go past etiquette to a subtle but extremely powerful form of suppression. When someone is described to us as nice we can’t help but feel that they’ve probably become a dreary amalgamation of what they think others expect. Unfortunately many religions give the impression that niceness can be worn like a badge that proves your spiritual sincerity, but it more often is based in the fear that we’ll be judged if we don’t maintain that façade. The word originally came from the Latin nescius meaning foolish, ignorant, senseless and timid, and while we don’t usually think of it in that way, perhaps that is closer to the truth of what being nice really requires. If we’re going to live fully, doubting, questioning, rebelling and living a sometimes messy life that may offend or irritate others is required. 

Last but not least of the four letter words we’d like to consider is love. There is probably no word so misused and misunderstood. In English, love is a catch-all term that tries to cover a plethora of emotions from lust to friendship and does none of them justice. It particularly falls flat when it’s used in conjunction with the Divine. Like the Eskimo people who have over 20 words for snow, the ancient Greeks realized love needed differentiation. For them, eros signified passion, agape meant ideal love, philia was a dispassionate, virtuous love based in the mind rather than the emotions, storge the natural affection a parent gives a child, and xenia, a form of hospitality and friendship that expected nothing in return.     

 Our indiscriminate use of the word allows us to believe that when we say “I love you,” it also carries the message, “for only as long as you please me.”  When we say “God is love” we believe that also means the Divine can be hate and vengeance. When we describe the Divine as compassionate, we mistake compassion for pity. When we say merciful, we assume that we’ve done something wrong that require forgiveness. When we say unconditional, we still attach conditions. It’s time to release the meanings of these words and accept the fact that when we speak about Divine love, there is nothing else. No synonyms, no antonyms, no descriptors needed. As Rumi said, “No more words, hear only the voice within.” Words are a deception. Experience the Divine up close and personal, and you will know what no word can ever explain.

 Lee and Steven Hager are the authors of The Beginning of Fearlessness: Quantum Prodigal Son, a spiritual quest and scientific adventure.

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