Images of the ineffable

Thinking is always, to some degree, an analogy or a representation of what is going on. Language is, too. We can never capture perfectly any other object or thing in words or images, but we can always point to it, gesture towards it, pay homage to it, make it imperfectly present to others.

The same is true of our experiences. Can I ever really communicate to another person what it is like for me to revel in a sunset; to feel an upswelling of affection for my husband when he gets that look of determined, bratty flirtation on his face (which means I am about to be poked or tickled or generally annoyed to some degree); to sip a really delicious and complex red wine; to finally understand a dense text whose meaning has been elusive for three consecutive readings? I love words and (if I can be so bold) I am actually pretty good at using and arranging words. But for experiences, words will always find their failing point. That failing point of words is where images and similes can take up the charge, even though they are themselves only ever imperfectly represented in words. Images and similes gives discussions of abstract and subjective human experiences substance and life when the paucity of words becomes apparent. I even find myself representing my own experiences to myself in images, as a way of understanding and working through difficult situations.


When I first encounter a difficult philosophical text, it usually comes to my mind as a confused, dark cloud covering the landscape. (I’m sure my reading of the wonderful text The Cloud of Unknowing, deserves credit for this lingering image.) It is opaque, dark with the seeming threat that I won’t actually be able to move through it, and hides the defined substances and boundaries that would help me situate my understanding. As I continue to move through the landscape and find fuzzy images and structures, the cloud slowly dissipates until all of a sudden sunlight bursts through the gloom and I breathe a deep sigh of relief. “OH! I see now.” That moment of understanding feels like light — again, an image that was given to me by so many cliches and poetic, artistic renderings of the process. The light of understanding is energizing, life-affirming, exciting. Who doesn’t identify with “light bulb moments”? Who doesn’t thrill at the first bright, sunlit day after weeks or months of dark, bleak winter?

The work of learning feels to me like walking along a forest path and coming up to a big, brambled, confused mass of branches, vines, and brushes. I slowly peel off a branch here, clear away some leaves and vines there, until all of a sudden I see the path ahead and how it connects to the path behind. Learning is the act of clearing away these obstructions, not just finding the right path. It is not just my job to find the path, but to clear it for myself. As a write, this also entails clearing it for others. That, however, takes a whole other, deeper, wider, more difficult level of  clearing and learning.

Then there is the learning in and of relationships. Oof. Those areas of growth, or need for growth, always feel like knots or clenched fists, situated right in the middle of my chest. I am confronted with a clenched fist and it feels like it might squeeze my lungs and heart to death, or perhaps harden everything around it until I am made of stone, tightness, resistance, anger, pain. As I examine the fist in my desire to dislodge it, I come to see slivers between the fingers of what false or destructive thing that fist is protecting. Slowly I start pulling each finger off the object clenched. At first I pull fingers free with effort equal to the resistance I am also putting forth in keeping the finger clenched. Eventually, however, if I am persistent in the pulling, the finger always releases, and they all release one by one. What I find resting on the palm is usually an irrational fear or a false belief that keeps me ensconced in anxiety and fearful self-protection. Opening my clenched fist allows me to let go of that false thing and rest in the peace (though the peace be sorrowful) of truth and love. Fear always gives way to peace when enough love and light are shined on it.

These images are certainly not unique, new, or special. I feel kind of silly laying out such banal, trite, conventional images as if they were filled with significance, but that’s what is so fascinating about them to me. I recognize their humdrum banality, but even so, every time I encounter different learning situations, these images and similes arise and feel new. They capture my experience, they feel real and revelatory, and they consistently come to my mind in a vivid, visceral way. These thoroughly unremarkable images give tangibility and depth to the way these processes or experiences feel to me, and give me tools (even encouragement) to continue to press forward. They manage to fill up with import and a newness that connects to past familiarity. This is not a bad description of our actual experiences, now that I think about it.

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