How Language creates reality

I attended a conference in Israel last week, hosted by Tishkofet, Life’s door, an organization at the forefront of providing spiritual care to the Israeli society.   The goal is to create a profession similar to the American healthcare chaplaincy system, providing spiritual support to people facing crisis and loss during life.  I will present a couple of posts about topics discussed during the conference.  The first plenary session was given by Rabbi Benjamin Ish-Shalom, founder of Beit Morasha.  He spoke about Spirituality and Language: Between Illusion and Reality or Between Fact and Meaning.

His premise was that our reality is shaped by the language we use in describing it.  If we believe we live in a spiritual reality, then that is where we are living.  Reality is a perception and might be an illusion. He distinguishes story and narrative, arguing that a person’s story is objective reality while the narrative is the reality we create.  We know this because G-d created the world through language, as it says in Pirqei Avot regarding the Asarah Maamarot, which is what use to build the world.

Rav Ish Shalom’s example of the paradox of life is Shabbat.  On the one hand, Shabbat is a day set in stone, always on Saturday (except when one is in a desert and no longer can intercalate the calendar.  In that situation a person is to count 7 days for himself and establish Shabbat for himself, regardless of the day this 7th day begins).  At the same time, we are able to extend Shabbat and end Shabbat through our words.

The idea of language shaping our lives and our understandings is the building block of life.  The breath of life was the power of speech.  While what Rav Ish-Shalom shared in its own right is not entirely novel, it provided a good framework for a conference spiritual care for the nuance of language is what creates the greatest barrier but also the most direct way to relate to others.  Without the ability to communicate, barriers do exists.  Boundaries are important as well, placing a challenge of balance in front of us.

For the world of chaplaincy, the idea that we create our own spiritual reality through the language we use is very telling.  A theme which bears repeating over and over is that each person is unique and has a unique narrative.  While the words used might be familiar to the care providers, one must discern what each person means by even seemingly simple words such as anger, sadness, joy, etc.  Health care professionals must work hard to be active listeners and know not just what words the person said but must investigate with the person what those words mean to him/her.  We step into their realities and as such need to be conscious of the unquenesses of that realty.