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Cara Dixon Headshot

To Speak the Words of Race, Religion, or Relationship

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I recently attended a seminar by a leading archaeologist in the study of artifacts from Ancient Troy. After the presentation, a question was posed as to why he was drawn to this kind of work. Without a moment's hesitation he explained that in collecting all the artifacts and putting them together, he is able to propose stories that give the pieced-together object meaning, shape, and context while also providing a more complete picture of the people and culture of this particular time. In other words, the work that defines the picture of completeness in an object could promote a descriptive understanding of a person or culture.

As I pondered the broken pieces of pottery coming together to engage in deeper significance, I recalled another lecture that I sat in on with Dr. Sheldon White, the skilled developmental psychologist. One particular day he described the research from early developmental theorists while explaining a presumed notion that the spoken word is synonymous to a container for thoughts. Thus, pieces of thought are pulled together to create the spoken word which contains them, and provides a meaning for the individual, as well as the receptive audience.

If this is the case, then words are powerful in that they hold and define the boundaries of a series of thoughts, feelings, or experiences which connect to deeper meaning. Does everyone have the same collection of thoughts that accompany the container of a word? No. Each person has unique thoughts that fill their words. For example, the word father to one person could hold different thoughts, experiences, or feelings than it does for another person. There are language- efficient commonalities in the definition of this word which allow people to share aspects of its meaning. However, below the surface of the Webster Dictionary outline, the word produces multiple meanings that may differ greatly based on the thoughts that fill, or do not fill, the container of the word father from person to person. G.K Chesterton reflects on the differentiation of word and meaning when he states, "The word good has many meanings. For example, if a man shoots his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards I should call him a good shot but not necessarily a good man". The word "good" would be interpreted differently with regard to what the meaning holds within the given context for that person.

The implications of this postulation are significant in that they invite further exploration of the spoken word with respect to the varying thoughts that create meaning differently within a population. Moreover, as much as there is acceptance of communication with regard to relational exchange of information, there must also be a sort of dismissal of individual perception in attempt to create honest interpretation of what a word means from person to person. Understanding this concept and instilling it in our cultural education could provide worthy societal gain. With the identification of the thoughts within a word, aspects of dysfunction that might fill that word could be replaced or redefined, thus assisting to change a meaning that may be hurtful or promote a damaging outcome. Moreover, as children develop into adults, and adults continue to develop in maturity, the ability to properly examine and interpret communicative discourse could allow for a more complete conceptual understanding of self and other, rather than fragments of meaning which invite misinterpretation. The skill would be to hear the word, listen intently for the meaning of the word to that person, compare it reflectively to one's own understanding, and then form a conclusion or response.

Though a word can be as beautiful as an artifact pieced together and used to contain abundance, it can also be shattered and destroyed if misunderstood or misrepresented based on the weight of what it is holding. It is with this postulation one may begin to observe and note what type of communication lends to discord, which in turn, can lead to stereotyping and faulty generalizations about another. Though some people seem to naturally have the ability to be attuned to look deeper and listen for what is inside a word, there appears to be a level of skill that requires education or practice to sustain.

If one learns to strive, when in dialogue with another, for accurate interpretation through the exploration of what is inside a word, as opposed to the word itself, I believe there could be a significant shift in perception, communication, and relational understanding that may otherwise lend itself to misinterpretation, judgment, and hostile belief patterns. This is something to consider as the dialogue of our time unfolds, and the defining artifacts of our culture our shaped. As George Eliot notes, "All meanings, we know, depend on the key of interpretation."