On Contempt, Awe, & The Re-Sacralization of Language: One Way To Renew The Earth


It is well known that much of our public discourse is marked by contempt. I cannot say if it has always been so, but it does seem to be a more recent phenomenon, and a growing one. Sadly, it also seems to be true of much of what is written these days. It almost feels as though adopting a tone of contempt and scorn has become fashionable, the de rigeur way to make one’s point, whether on individual blogs, Facebook posts, Twitter, email, advertisements, in articles or even entire books. Books, it should be noted, that are written by otherwise intelligent, well-meaning, kind people who, I know, are reasonably careful thinkers.

Further, this trend, if I may be permitted to call it that, doesn’t seem to favor one social or political group or leaning over another, nor is it restricted to those in the public eye. Name-calling and ridicule is rampant. In ancient times, to call someone a name was often akin to literally cursing them. Such was the power of a name or a label. Today, more and more, I hear ordinary people call those with whom they disagree — persons or causes — the most vile and acerbic of names. One or two-syllable names that lack even the originality of a thoughtful insult. This always shocks me because I know that basically, these are good, kind people. But it’s as though I’m watching them become possessed by a demon before my eyes. Their tongues drip with disgust, and many seem to have taken up the habit of actually sticking out their tongues, like grade school children. Their faces screw up in a sneer. Their speech becomes brittle, clipped, dismissive. Above all, it reeks with contemptuous certainty. Absolutism abounds.

So I’ve been wondering. And in my wondering, I’ve noticed contrasts. When I read speeches, lectures, essays, letters, books, stories and tales by some of the great minds and hearts of the past, I am moved both by the sheer beauty of their language as much as the clarity and strength of voice. In other words, I am captured by what they say as much as by how they say it. By their tone.

And tone, as much as subject matter or beauty of language, is also what draws me to current writers. The other day, while looking at the precariously positioned stack of books on my beside table, I found myself wondering at the variety. Besides the novels, the stack contained works by naturalists, philosophers, religious and spiritual writers, artists, poets, essayists, gardeners, mathematicians, and physicists, from the time of Rumi to right now. Nearly every one of these writers could and would be called ‘an expert’ in their field, but they do not refer to themselves that way, nor does their work reek of ‘expertness.’ No easy answers are offered, no solutions. I would say, in fact, that they have the love of a true ‘amateur,’ a word that in fact comes from the root, “to love.” These writers’ words are refreshingly free from contempt, scorn and ridicule.

As I sat and looked through these books, and then wandered around my bookshelves, wondering what else they had in common, I realized that those who speak to me the most all have a strong connection to the natural, non-mechanized, non-human world. This is true even if they worked and lived most of their lives in suburbs or cities. Too, it seems to be a very personal connection, and further, one that seems devoid of the need to convince. Even among the professional preachers, there is absent much ‘preaching.’ There is not much prescription here, but the works are rich in description, especially description of the writers’ own participatory engagement with the earth. There is a sense of living truly in the world, not simply ‘on’ it or ‘above’ it.

Their language reflects this participation. It is rich, varied, complex, sensuous and above all, perceptual. This isn’t about style: styles range from the simplest to the most complicated, from lyrical to staccato. Regardless of style, this language gets under your skin. You can roll a phrase around on your tongue and taste its sweetness or sharpness. You can smell individual words, not just to what the words refer, and you can feel the way whole paragraphs modulate the body’s responses. This language is participatory, not merely symbolic, and thus invites our participation. It is the difference between objectivity and subjectivity, between looking at a painting, and becoming, even for a brief moment, part of it. It is the difference between showing and telling. Between declaration and invocation.

There is a delightful scene in the film “Mary Poppins” which speaks profoundly to this difference. It is my favorite in the whole movie. It is the scene in which Mary, the children and Bert all ‘jump into’ his chalk painting, and proceed to have an afternoon filled with adventures of the sort one can only have in the company of Mary Poppins. The lesson here is about sensuous participation and engagement of the whole self, including the body. Indeed, the entire movie rests on this theme, and this is what Mary teaches the family: how to participate and engage with each other and with the world, human and non-human, around them. It is no coincidence that the final scene takes place in a park. After all, in order to fly a kite, you must hold the string and participate in wind. In the breath of life, all life.

As I continued with these musings, I began to wonder, then, if there is some connection between the contemporary culture’s widespread disregard and contempt for all other forms of life, and the contempt which has crept and leapt into our language. Do they reflect each other? Might this absence of participation in and with earth – the earth herself and all nonhuman earthly life which together comprises ‘earth’ – might this have something to do with the near ubiquitous adoption of such singularly nondescript words as “whatever” to communicate our complete indifference? And of such phrases as “got it” to let someone know, not that we understand instructions, in which case there is in fact something to ‘get,’ but rather that we have heard all we think we need to know or hear? That we are done with listening whether we have in fact got anything or not?

Might the many ways in which we express – literally push out — our contempt for an Other, whether it be an idea or person, another’s choice or form or path through life, might this be related somehow to the separation of our selves, our sensuous, feeling, earth body selves, from all other body selves who dwell in earth? Might our easy willingness to speak our indifference (“whatever”) be a projection of the modern human’s introjected separation of ourselves from all else?

In Living in the Borderland, Jerome Bernstein writes that what is unique to the hyper-analytical, hyper-critical and hyper-destructive modern “Western” ego (an ego form that is prevalent all over the world now) is that it thinks it invented itself. It is thus without a participatory frame of reference. Because of this, it does not feel any connection with any other body, not even its own, and so cannot then even feel a need for such connection. It truly lives ‘on’ or even ‘above’  the earth, not ‘in’ it. It does not dwell.

It seems to me that contempt is a singular expression of this nondwelling. Our modern word contempt derives from the Latin con-, with, and temnere, meaning to slight, disregard, scorn, disdain or despise. The now obsolete verb form was ‘to contemn.’ It becomes easy ‘to contemn’ when the sensing, sensuous bodyself is absent. Without the body’s engagement, it is easy to dis-regard, or to ‘not see.’ Regard comes directly to us from the French ‘regarder.’ A few of its meanings are ‘to look at,’ ‘to direct all one’s attention upon,’ ‘to look kindly on,’ ‘to take full account of,’ ‘to examine,’ and ‘to judge to have merit.’

For more insight, I turn to David Abrams. He writes much about language in The Spell of the Sensuous, specifically about its participatory, perceptual characteristics. Abrams looks into the work of the philosopher Merleau-Ponty for further insight and understanding. Merleau-Ponty devoted his life to investigating perception. His central work is titled The Phenomenology of Perception, and although his early death cut short deeper work into language, Abrams brilliantly, and sensuously, takes up where he left off.

In Abrams’ work I find affirmation for my own personal and deep appreciation of language as an expressive web of soul and sense. Language full of the body, invoked by the body, arising from the body: the body of the earth, the bodies of all nonhuman and human life forms. At its embodied best it is evocation, invocation and benediction, a way to call and be called to the primordial, from which the first sacred languages, human and nonhuman, arose. I share the non-modern view that language is palpably related to the enchanted and animate landscape. Abrams tells us that according to an elder of the Dogon tribe of Mali, “spoken language was originally a swirling garment of vapour and breath worn by the encompassing earth itself.” Language, then, including human speech, is itself ecological and interconnected to the depths and breadths of all that lives, human and nonhuman. In this way human language might be understood to be part of the explicate order, not just an abstract meta-something we use to describe it.

I have for some time wondered if the rapid destruction of the earth and the extinction of species which so characterizes our modern industrial and fossil fuel age, particularly the past hundred and fifty years, has a direct effect on human speech and language, and vice versa. It seems to me that it does. When we lose and destroy species, whether lichen or songbirds, frogs or mountain tops, we lose and destroy something of our own capacity to express ourselves, and to express what is both unique and good about humanity. Abrams seems to believe this, too. He writes: “When we no longer hear the voices of warbler and wren, our own speaking can no longer be nourished by their cadences. As the splashing speech of the river is silenced by more and more dams, as we drive more and more of the land’s wild voices into the oblivion of extinction, our own languages become increasingly impoverished and weightless…”

And here we come back to the place I began, to contempt. Contempt is not only a projection of what we feel for that part of ourselves that has caused such wrack and ruin to our earth body. Contempt is also a response to impoverishment. Underneath the clipped words, the absolutist certainty, the ridicule and dismissive tone, the name calling and the impatience and lack of wonder that pervades our communication, we find the twins poverty and weightlessness.

Knowing this helps me. These are conditions with which I can empathize, which widen my compassionate heart. For I know that poverty creates hunger, thinness, meanness. And that what creates weightlessness is starvation. Through poverty and weightlessness, I begin to see how the swirling garment of vapour and breath is being rent to shreds.

How, then, are we to respond? How are we to begin mending the cloth? Bring ourselves out of poverty? Nourish ourselves so that we have substance and the capacity to interact sensually and thereby once more perceive the earth, the cosmos and all its beings as ensouled and enchanted? How do we begin re-sacralizing our speech and re-enchanting our language? And why might it be valuable to do so?

Perhaps one way is through reverence. To revere means to stand in awe of, to treat with respect and deference, to approach with regard and deep respect. From the same root and word, we get the title that we accord to those who function as priests: Reverend. This gives us a clue. By practicing reverence in our language, we are in some sense functioning as priests. We minister, to one another yes, but equally to the earth.

Another meaning of ‘to revere’ is ‘to fear.’ Another comes from the now-obsolete cognate, ‘verecund,’ which means modest, shy, or bashful.

Knowing all of this, I believe it is worth asking what might change if we began to revere our capacity for human language. How might our relationships with all life forms be altered if we could seriously entertain the idea that the ancient, original function of human speech, the very reason we were given such speech, or evolved it, was so that we could communicate our awe and engage in a deeper, perceptual, participatory kinship with all other life forms? Rabbi Arthur Green suggests that religion begins not with doctrine or theology, but with the need to pray. Perhaps that is the origin of language as well.

In most non-modern cultures, words are understood to be magical, to be what Abrams calls an “active, sensuous presence” and not merely a Platonic ideal or form that pointed to the sensing feeling world, but was not part of it. Words were felt presences. They had weight, and power. A word or a phrase was known to influence, transform or alter the field in which it was uttered, and the animate life forms there. Merely because we do not recognize it now does not mean that this is not still the case. Of course, children still know this. The rhyme that ‘sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me’ is a falsity. But what is true is that animals and plants and stones and clouds speak ‘a language more ancient than any tongue.’Pick up any children’s book for proof.

With this attitude, then, it becomes a holy act and not some silly inconsequential inanity to sing to the land. It becomes vital to tell the maple tree in my front yard that I love it, and that I’m sorry we have to cut off one of its limbs, now dead and leaning precariously over the house, and to offer it soft words of thankfulness when we do. As I said to my arborist, when he looked at me askance: “Well, if you were a tree, wouldn’t a chainsaw make you really nervous?” It is neighborly to welcome my daffodils back as they poke up through the snow, and to ask the skunks that dwell in my neighborhood and regularly move through my yard what they can teach me, what message they have, and to recognize that their serpentine movement and snuffling is perhaps a blessing, or at least, a communication. In this case, a very sensual one, indeed.

Reverencing all language may also be a tool we can use as we navigate through these particularly challenging new-birth times.

There are so many ways to revere. We can:

  • soften our speech, especially when we are in the natural world;
  • modulate our tones
  • use fewer definite articles and absolutes;
  • enlarge our vocabularies so that we can sensually participate in our own words, the words of others, and thus counter the tendency to “povertize” our own language;
  • use our own language to create new, positive visions and forms, instead of inciting fear and dread
  • sing the new ‘universal’ human who is now being born through the birth canal
  • learn a new human and/or nonhuman language;
  • mimic a bird or another animal;
  • spend far more time in silence;
  • actively and patiently listen to the earth and her nonhuman dwellers even if we do not think we understand a single ’word;’
  • pay attention to the ways both written and spoken words affect our own bodies;
  • work to save languages that are threatened with extinction, for these reflect ecological diversity, and may even affect it;
  • learn the origins of words;
  • learn songs and poems;
  • reintroduce words that have become ‘obsolete’
  • read deeply loved myth, story, nature essay and tale aloud, to ourselves, our friends, children, the squirrels.

These are just a few ways. And they may seem silly. (A word, by the way, whose medieval origin and use meant “blessed.”)

Yet, by re-sacralizing language, we may then meet contempt in an open field and so render it less potent. We may flesh our language and make our words holy and whole. We may counter the impoverishment and weightlessness of absolutes. We may make our own speech worthy of the “life-world,” the Lebenswelt which it seeks to narrate and describe. And we may find that we have become more participatory, perceiving, interacting, engaging beings with the whole of the enchanted sensuous earth.

The portal of human language can and does transport some of us to a place of union with all of the animate enchanted world, and instill a mysterious, tremendous and unequivocal love for our Earth Mother. I know this is so, because it happened this way for me. And it is just as meaningful a portal as any other.

And now we circle back around to the ‘prologue’ to this post, and why it’s important.

It is a common directive among a number of ecologists, eco-therapists and environmentalists today that the only solution to our current planetary crisis, the only way to establish a relationship with one’s essential bodyself, and the only fully adequate, legitimate spiritual path for our time is one in which we encounter Nature “out there” in its raw form.

First, if we have to rely on any one, single solution, then I think we will be in graver trouble than we are in. Second, such “only-ness” creates discord and exclusion. Unfortunately, this passion for the earth, the pain felt from its destruction, and the despair over this can lead people to make less-than-fully-tempered statements that sound absolutist, even when the person making it is not.

This is not unusual. When we are caught in any archetypal field, the solution to every problem – particularly other people’s problems, or the world’s problems – looks like the archetype at the center of that field, for it exerts an extreme magnetic pull. To put it another way, if I have a solar complex, I tend to think that the only adequate solution to everything involves sunshine. If I have a lunar complex, the answer to every problem necessarily involves moon cycles. Several years ago, I was so gripped by alchemy that everything looked alchemical, and I was passionate about the need for everyone to learn something about it, until my husband pointed out that wasn’t likely to happen.

The problem is that we tend, under these circumstances, to make absolutist, exclusionary and contemptuous-sounding statements, because to our impassioned ears, they do not sound absolutist or exclusionary or contemptuous. They just sound correct! In fact, they sound so obvious as to hardly need stating. However, they also all rather sound the same:

“The way to the father is through Me.”

But there is never just one way.

I did not have an opportunity to experience “nature” until I was in my late twenties. I grew up in a suburb, and I spent most of my time pursing a “high art” as it was called, inside the four walls of a ballet classroom. I danced several hours a day, every day, for many years. From age 15 until 42, I lived more often than not in boxy apartments, without grass or gardens, and I never went camping until I was over thirty. I moved 17 times in 22 years. I lived in cities. My only interaction with the outdoors was through parks and other ‘green spaces.’ I did not have a car, so I bicycled and indeed, met both human and nonhuman nature in her ‘raw form’ daily this way, especially in rainy Seattle. But it wasn’t a spiritual practice. Back then, it wasn’t even motivated by any noble desire to ‘save the planet.’ It was simply the way I got around because I preferred it.

And yet, from the time I was very small, I had a deep and potent relationship to the Earth, one that was fierce, private, quiet, participatory, sensual and perceptual. Simply put, earth spoke to me. I was ten years old when stone first talked to me. It was plain old stone that had been upturned and dug up in the lot next door, as they were getting ready to build a new house on it. Sacred stone? In a suburban lot? I don’t know, and at ten it hardly mattered. It was certainly not a question I would have thought to ask, if for no other reason than I would have thought it rude. All that mattered to me was that it spoke, and listened, and I was hungry for conversation. And how did I know it was ‘okay’ and ‘normal’ to speak and listen to stone? Because I had read that it was.

As odd as it might be to say it, it was mostly through the daily rigor required for the pursuit and perfection of classical ballet, ongoing ‘mystical’ experiences (mostly indoor, but whether they were ‘high-minded’ or not, I could not say), a certain amount of trauma but most importantly the portal of language that brought forth my relationship with earth. In particular, it was through language that I came to fully recognize that my relationship was Earth was both real and embodied. And that it mattered, whatever its form, and whether other people approved or recognized it as sufficient or not.

And it was also through the portal of language that my own essential self fully began to flower, and continues. I can even tell you the specific doorway. It was the book The Secret Garden. Reading it. Not being in one, because I was 42 before I had the delight of putting in my first garden. But through this book, and then many others, of the sort I mentioned early on, I found “my tribe” and a sense of inclusion:  books in which the writers invited me, through their language, to become part of the “life-world” even if I were confined most of the day inside a dance classroom or a cubicle at work. Through their loving expression of their own sensual participation in earth, I found my own inner garden, and found my own myth, and came to my essential self. And knew myself to be truly part of the earth tribe.

And this is how I know that all language can potentially take us back to our first, primordial sacred language of awe.

I have put in many gardens since my first one. I still don’t camp much, and probably never will. I am now grateful and privileged to live in a place where, as I sit here and write, I am surrounded by gardens, trees, and mountains; by animals, and birds and ants and foxes and even skunks. I can walk to town, and five minutes outside my door is a beautiful nature trail that winds through forest and by water. Across the street is the Connecticut River. My own little house sits on what for me is truly ‘holy dirt’ and ‘sacred land.’ And the land and its life speak to me. And I to them. In my dreams, in plain waking moments. Right now. We are in near-constant communication.

I am not a shaman, but I cannot help but note with amusement Abrams’ words: “Yet it is those who are recognized as shamans, or medicine persons, who most fully remember the primordial sacred language, and who are thus able to slip, at will, out of the purely human discourse in order to converse directly with the other powers.”

There is an intimate reciprocity to our sensual selves. We run our fingers along the green smooth length of a flower stalk, and feel the stalk respond, and touch us. We speak to a stone, and know that in some essential way we are heard. It isn’t important whether the stalk and stone is encountered in the wild or in an English garden. The encounter is what is important.

I quote David Abrams once more. His words are palpable, inclusive, and deeply wise.

“To return to our senses is to renew our bond with this wider life, to feel the soil beneath the pavement, to sense – even when indoors – the moon’s gaze upon the roof.” –Patti Frankel, www.innerwisdomexploration.com. (This was also posted there, in more or less the same format.)

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