See The Verb [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

Random fact of the day: my waking thought this morning was about The Geography of Thought. No kidding. It’s a terrific book by Richard Nisbett. The subtitle is “How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…And Why.” Somewhere in the recesses of my brain I must have been pondering the bumper sticker we recently saw: I’m With Earth.*

One of the points made in the book, the one that permeated my dream state, is that different languages place different emphasis on different parts of speech. For instance, many Asian languages place emphasis on the verb. English speakers place the emphasis on the noun. In listening to mothers talk to their infant children, an English speaker will say, “Look at the red truck! Do you see the red truck?” An Asian mother will say, “Look at the red truck go!” Do you see the red truck go?”

Why does it matter where the emphasis lands in a language structure? Noun or verb?

The language we use shapes our thinking and seeing. It shapes basic worldviews. Earth as a noun or earth as a verb. Earth as a stand-alone-thing or earth as a moving interrelationship. These are vastly different worldviews.

This was my thought/image coming out of sleep: earth and sky. In a noun world, earth and sky are two distinctly different things. In a verb world, earth and sky are not separate things, they are verbs, actions, interplay of a dynamic relationship. In a noun world, I am also a distinctly different thing. In a verb world, earth, sky and I are not separate things, we are a dynamic inseparable relationship. We.

The bumper sticker is a declaration: I am with earth. It makes perfect sense in a noun world because it is also possible, in a perceptual world of separate things, to be against earth. Nature needs to be conquered, tamed. In a noun world, earth, once tamed, is a resource and resources are meant to be used. In a noun world, we are capable of believing that our actions have no impact on our environment. Action and environment are nouns, separate things.

In a verb world, what you do to the earth is what you do to yourself. No separation. In a perceptual world of relationship, of verbs, it is understood that your actions not only have impacts, your actions are impacts.

We woke to the news of yet another mass shooting. This one in Colorado. As usual, we know that our community and leadership will offer thoughts and prayers but nothing really – not really- will be done to address it. In a noun world, we protect the rights of the individual, the separate thing. In a verb world, there are no mass shootings. None. Violence done to one is violence done to all. In fact, more people are gunned down in the United States in a day than are killed by gun violence in Japan in a decade. The differing linguistic emphasis extends to differing understanding of rights and responsibilities.

Language matters. Where we focus matters. What we emphasize matters. The story we tell is determined by the language we use to tell it. I am with earth. Or, I am earth. I go to worship. I am worship. I seek purpose. I am purpose. Separation. Relationship. A whole philosophy of living reduced to a simple bumper sticker.

So, when we ask complex questions like, “Why can’t we do anything about gun violence?” or, “How is it possible that people in a pandemic refuse to wear masks to protect each other,” our answer is really very simple: our language makes it so.

Perhaps in a world of nouns a declaration is the best we can do. It is a step toward the middle way, a declaration of responsibility to the commons. Black Lives Matter. #MeToo. Stop Asian Hate. I’m With Earth.

*The “I’m with Earth” sticker is from the very cool company Gurus

read Kerri’s blog post about I’M WITH EARTH