Random Opinions (less randomly ordered)

On Symbols

A symbol is a concrete (that is, knowable by perception or imagination) emblem, mark, or sign that points beyond itself to a reality (a belief or an idea), the meaning (the definition and description) of which it (the symbol) communicates to the perceiver of the symbol. For a symbol to be a symbol that definition and description must be communally-transmitted and understood.(1)

On Words

Words are symbols; pointing beyond themselves to realities (concepts, ideas) that, when employed (said or written), conjure up in the minds of the listeners or the readers those realities (concepts, ideas).

Though manifold are the ways we humans can communicate with one another (e.g., our facial expressions), we, wedded to words, inevitably must use them.

On the Benefit and Risk of Words

We humans, when using words, encounter, inexorably and in equal measure, benefit and risk.

The benefit is in the constant work of broadening one’s vocabulary. As my sainted grandmother Audia Mae Hoard Roberts instilled in me, the more words one knows (and how to use them), one’s capacity to communicate can be more nuanced and precise; thus, closer to the truth of one’s understanding and meaning.

The risk is in the assumption that any two or more people, when using the same words, understand and mean to communicate precisely the same concepts and ideas. That, I believe (as each of us, no matter how similar in worldview or how long-and-well-known, is wholly individual), is an inherent impossibility.

Therefore, cleaving to another of my grandmother’s lessons, there alway is the necessity for us, when communicating with one another, to define our terms. To wit: “When I use this word in this instance, I mean this.” Yes, this may (doubtless, will) make our efforts to communicate tedious, but our tedium, I think, is better than having our intent misunderstood and our meaning misconstrued.


(1) I can conceive of an insignia devised by an individual, the meaning of which is known only to that person. However, that, I think, lacking some universal or communally-shared recognition, is less a symbol and more a personal sign.

3 thoughts on “Random Opinions (less randomly ordered)

  1. Dear Paul,

    I find myself contemplating – not asking, because I believe if you had felt it beneficial or necessary you would have disclosed – the situation(s) that may have prompted the consideration and writing of this post. Along those lines, I am finding that some of us engaged in conversations going on with regard to a number of issues in our society today would benefit a great deal from carefully reading and heeding the truths that you and your grandmother so aptly and wisely have professed about language and its usage. It feels some days as if many of us collectively have found ourselves needing to head back to nursery school or kindergarten to finally learn very basic lessons, linguistic and otherwise, that we had many opportunities to learn a very long time ago. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing; I actually think it’s a very good thing, but it’s also, as it has always been, disappointing that it is necessary.

    Thank you, once again, for a perceptive and timely lesson in human communication and thus relationships.

    With love,



  2. Paul,

    This post is going to help me tonight I think….. I read it all and Karen’s reply… but I’m focusing on the beginning…

    “Words are symbols; pointing beyond themselves to realities (concepts, ideas) that, when employed (said or written), conjure up in the minds of the listeners or the readers those realities (concepts, ideas).”

    Tonight is my spiritual writing class at VTS and I’m curious how I’ll be writing to God tonight. Will I be focusing more on words or symbols?? I’m also curious that in this type of writing do we have to choose our words so carefully as we would in other situations….OR because it’s spiritual in nature is our intent automatically understood??? You learned some great lessons from your loved ones…. thanks for passing them along!!

    I’ll let you know how tonight turns out!!

    Much love!


  3. Karen, as I wrote to Loretta earlier, I am not sure (still!) what has prompted me to post under the heading: Random Thoughts. I do know or think that I know these thoughts occur to me. Your contemplation of what situation or situations led to my writing and posting these thoughts has thrown me back to that very consideration. (This would not be the first time I said or did something without being fully conscious of why!)

    I think this particular post has arisen from my intentional encounter and engagement with “the other” – those who do not think and feel as I do or believe what I believe about manifold things. In these fractious times, I think, “the other” is not far to seek or hard to find (even within one’s self).

    This quest to be in relationship with different folk has been my consistent and conscious life’s movement since the fall of 2005 when I was joined by others to plan my 7-month sabbatical (June 2006-Hanuary 2007), which was designed to go around the world and to be with folk, generally church folk, who were conservative in their biblical and theological views. The question that I put to myself: Could I be…would I be willing to be in relationship and conversation with others who differ from me and forsake the desire or need to want to change them? Could I be in deep and deepening conversation with the intent of learning from them and, thus, potentially, broadening my awareness and appreciation of Truth (with a capital “T”), knowing that I did not and never could and never will possess all Truth.

    So, these days, I have been in conversation, sometimes intense, with people whose political views are different, very different than mine. And, lo and behold, what I have discovered anew is that though we still differ, I have developed a deeper respect for an alternative point of view. That is to say, I get it…I get those who see the world differently and, thus, I have a broader view of the world. At the same time, some of the folk who are my counterpoints in these discussions (sometimes, arguments), in my view, employ language differently than I, which I observe without comment. Thus, I think, my awareness of our differing use of terms has led, in part, to this post.

    Loretta, I look forward to knowing more of your spiritual writing class. You ask: “Will I be focusing more on words or symbols??” Hmmm, I’m not sure how I would reply given that I believe words are symbols. Perhaps you mean will you concentrate more on the word itself or the symbol to which it points?

    As for your second question: “I’m also curious that in this type of writing do we have to choose our words so carefully as we would in other situations….OR because it’s spiritual in nature is our intent automatically understood???” Ah, here, depending, again, on what you mean, I’m a lot clearer as to how I would reply. Spiritual writing, it seems to me, is akin to writing prayers, which, because they are prayers directed to God, need not be constructed with uber-carefully chosen words. For prayers, as emanations of one’s heart and mind, soul and spirit, simply (and profoundly), I believe, flow from the deep wells of one’s existence and experience, needing and desiring. At least, I think…believe so.

    Love you two, always and in all ways.


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