You never really know what they “mean” until you have actually experienced them, and even then they’re shape-shifters: their meaning differs from person to person, for each one of us. I have no true idea of the meaning of the word “ring,” let’s say, until I have actually seen one in its contextual environment, and placed it on my finger. Once that happens, the word’s meaning becomes thick and rich, and every time I use it, it comes loaded with memories, associations, feelings…
And my ring, of course, is constantly in flux; and it is not the same as your ring. When you say or hear the word, it means something quite different for you, unique unto yourself. What we share is only the concept of “ringness,” as it were.
By the same token, my tree is not your tree. And here we enter a whole, vast range of diversity: oak, ash beech, birch, elm, pine, sycamore… We know the meaning of those words only by having walked through woods or forests, having touched the bark, noticed the shape and color of the leaves, stepped on the needles or the mulch, breathed in the smell of the sap… And then we must add in objective knowledge to the mix, whether scientific or anecdotal.
So, too, your ocean is not my ocean; my sky not yours.
These thoughts surfaced last night as I lay thinking about bereavement, and how such words with abstract reference—“love”, “fear”, “presence”, “absence”—are no more than concepts, empty of real significance, until we come to actually experience them. And even then, like the universe, they are subject to infinite expansion.
Take love, for instance. I have known the love of parents, friends; the hot love of sexual passion; the love of a father for his children; the kind of love that grows, unsuspected, over the years; the love that sometimes, sadly, ceases, or turns into indifference, or worse. Sometimes you simply do not know how much you love, until you are surprised by its new dimension with an illness, a birth, a death…
So it is with bereavement. I had no idea, until recently, what it meant. Well, I had only an idea. I “understood” the word, certainly, and believed that I could empathize with those who felt it. But it was never real to me, as a word. The real understanding, then, is not in the head but in the heart, where bereavement manifests as an immeasurable void and is experienced, paradoxically, as a palpable absence, a weight, a heaviness that spreads from the heart to the whole body.
So I can finally speak or write this word with authenticity, with the knowledge that it now comes with a full understanding, from the heart. It’s a gift I had not sought, and would rather not have received, but it is, still and all, a gift for which I must be grateful. I have added a word to my “real” vocabulary and can use it, now, with the empathy it calls for.