What came first the description or the reality?

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I’ve had a friend recently characterize some people as “needy” or “clingy” and I had to wonder if those terms are used more often as a justification than as a fair description.  

My question is the classic chicken-or-egg-came-first causality dilemma expressed in our socialization.  Individuals create societies, but societies most definitely influence individuals and splitting up responsibility is not as easy as simply picking one or the other.

Causality: Words versus reality?

Descriptions do matter.  Describing adjectives are subjective points of view rather than concrete realities and yet themselves do help form reality.  Two people evaluating the same behavior can come to vastly different conclusions.  An alleged flirt could be described as friendly, being aggressive may be assertive, opinionated could be engaging, arrogant could be confident, pushy might be sincere and the list goes on.

Descriptions reflect our prejudices.  A negative description influences how others may interpret a person’s behavior and could harm them.  What we see as bad in another person’s behavior may actually say more about our own personality and weaknesses than theirs.  We could very well be blinded by our own perceptions of reality and be blinding others with our less than flattering words.

Good judgment requires good context.  If I were to say a person is “desperate for attention” there is a sort of pejorative sense assumed.  But, if that phrase was used in the context of serious physical injury with a need for immediate professional medical help, does that change the inflection?  For me it changes my interpretation of the ‘desperate’ person’s character.

Humans have many needs, all are things necessary for a healthy life or perspective of reality, and some needs are more immediate or pressing than others.  There’s a way the most reasonable or composed person can be made to become like a wild animal in less than a minute and all it takes is to cut off their air supply.  A person chocking a chicken bone or drowning is likely desperate, they are definitely needy and they might even get a bit clingy too.

Giving a cold shoulder to a starving soul…

Picture another scenario, picture a banquet hall, many at the table enjoying the abundance, some proclaiming loudly how blessed and full they are.  But, on all sides around those partaking are many others who are shut off from the food and drink.  Those at the table chatter and smile oblivious to those behind them.  Those outside are fully aware, they patiently wait their turn as the pangs of thirst and hunger build.

Finally, after this goes on for days, and those at the table take no notice, one of the outsiders taps one of the friendlier in appearance feasters on the shoulder asking just for a slice of bread and sip of water.  Unfortunately, the person at the table, fat from gorging themselves, looks back, they see the peaked figures behind them, they assume the outsiders must be sick with a deadly disease and, instead of offering sustenance, they are horrified.

What happens when a person has no access to food or drink?  They starve, they thirst and, if it continues long enough, even the most confident person will become increasingly desperate in their search for an answers and eventually fall into doubt or fear.  They will no longer enjoy the shouts of satisfaction of others and especially that of those who refuse to offer rescue, relief or help.  It is understandable if they got a bit pushy and increasingly desperate, right?

It is our job as people of faith to turn those who are outsiders into insiders:

“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”  (Colossians 4:5-6)

So, what should we do to be more loving?

Going back to needy or clingy, used as an assessment of human behavior, let me apply the feast scenario above to human need of companionship.  Like all people need air to breath and water to drink and food to eat, most people require a balanced diet of social interaction or inclusion to be happy and healthy.  A person shut off from necessary social sustenance will likely become increasingly desirous of affection or affirmation and with that their behavior may shift towards more assertiveness.

What could be hidden in our characterization of a person as being needy or desperate is a justification to mistreat them.  And, at very least, it is not helpful to tell a chocking person that “hey, you look desperate and needy.”  Without help offered, commentary on the obvious could sound more like a taunt than a useful observation.  At worse, it is stuffing a pejorative down their throat, giving them yet another reason to feel unvalued and isolated.

The needy and clingy characterization of someone is probably used unfairly in many cases and may be used as cover for our own wrongful attitudes.  If their appreciation of our companionship and if their affection towards us were valued, we would call them “appreciative and affectionate” instead.  But, the reason we call them clingy or needy is because we (or those we are defending) are at some level wanting to excuse ourselves from responsibility for their human needs.

Needy and clingy are a negative spin on appreciative or affectionate. They could be used as a pejorative to describe a person who we don’t value and also are damaging words if used to help shape the opinions of others.  Our insensitive use of language can have consequences.  Labels effect how we see ourselves and also how we see others.  If we were to tell someone who made mistakes they are “stupid” or “idiotic” we may actually impact their confidence negatively to the degree they respect or others respect our opinion.

Wisely using words that build rather than harm…

People need affirming words to make them grow more than they need their behavior characterized negatively.  Even bad experiences can be redeemed if reframed as an opportunity to learn or grow. Likewise a positive description can also be used to shape a person positively.  It is likely far more beneficial for a person already down on themselves to hear their hopes or desires given legitimacy and respect instead of derision.

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. […] Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:29, 32)

Describing a person negatively to others is rarely helpful.  To speak disparagingly about a person without giving them a chance to defend from the accusation is basically to murder their character.  

However, when times demand we must be critical and there are ways to offer criticism that help and other ways that hurt.  The first I recommend, rather than discuss them with other friends, is to go directly to them treating them as a friend.  This is the idea Jesus taught for addressing ‘sin’ against us (Matthew 18:15) and provides a chance for the offending party to explain themselves.  That is the way of love.

There are many wound, broken and hurting people in the world who are well aware of their own need.  These are people who need not be reminded again of their own deficiencies.  We do not know what they have had to overcome.  It is not our job to determine what another person does or does not deserve.  True love is not only kind or accepting to those most like us, but is self-sacrificial and gracious to the undeserving.  That is the way of Jesus.

Do your words feed and nourish a better reality?

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10 thoughts on “What came first the description or the reality?

  1. Wise words. I believe that we have a similar understanding, although as you have perfectly noted that words are powerful, I believe that it is imperative that we not only look onto others but look onto ourselves first, when attempting to understand reality. As you have stated, “It is our job as people of faith to turn those who are outsiders into insiders.”, which still highlights the notion of separation; A and B; good and bad; inferior and superior. We all experience life and reality differently as the lenses through which percieve reality is coloured with past and present experiences and expectations. Words are powerful, but only to the degree to which we allow. We create the meanings behind our words,just as what love means to me may be vastly different in comparison to what it means to you. Thus, if I wish to understand you then I would start by understanding the essense behind your words and not just the word alone. From my perspective – life, reality and individuals do not exist in isolation but rather are constantly and interdependently entwined with one another, at all times, and are socially, politically, culturally and historically bound.

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    • Thank you. I agree, we may use slightly different words, but i do feel there is a definite resonance to your words and appreciate our connection. With your second point, I did dichotomize to illustrate, and some do get handed better cards than others, but most of us are both ‘at the banquet table’ and not. We all likely have needs not fully met, we also have needs we could fill and need to transcend the “have’s versus have not’s” mentality by finding unity in something bigger than ourselves, our tribe, etc. I confess, lastly, that you caught me, the post was more directed at those who use words that could be interpreted as demeaning and I left the interpreter off the hook. You are right, it is the hearer who colors the words as much as the speaker and thus the hearer has some responsibility for the power of the words spoken. We need to be sensitive in what we say and sometimes insensitive about what we hear. Put differently: Act with love and react with grace.

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      • I do not believe in a right or wrong as either could be correct or incorrect in varying contexts. I am not here to judge or place my understanding above any other. Should my words resonate with you, then I am glad. I hope for a reality where everyone is aware of the necessities within taking personal responsibility but the truth is, we are exactly where we need to be. And back to your original question about whether reality or description comes first, I think you have answered that within your response. Nature is and will always be objective and that is the true reality, although as we percieve and interpret what we see, we come to define reality, with our own words and meanings and within our own context and current understanding. I have found that once something is defined it can have a stagnating effect on that concept as we tend to percieve only what we have defined and thus what we expect and be oblivious or ignorant to elements that fall outside of the definition. As we said, words are powerful and according to my understanding, we must be aware of what we say and what we mean. The combination of our perception and the voice thereof does make our reality after all. But that might just be me.

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  2. Oh, and, yes, we are definitely parts of an interconnected whole. Independent in thought (but far less independent than we think we are) and completely dependent otherwise. I do allow for a dimension of reality beyond what we perceive with our physical senses (spiritual) that would allow for a concept of ‘free-will’ and yet think much is determined for us whether we realize it or not. It is cause for a bit of awe, for some fear and much hope that we can exist consciously as independent minds.

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  3. Responding to your second comment. Materialism definitely has a distinct appeal because of modern science. There is a trustworthiness to the material universe in our ability to consistently repeat and predict results. However, I believe science is incomplete as a tool for understanding any reality beyond physical reality. The assumption there is nothing beyond what we can see, hear or touch is a distinct weakness for materialism. We already know time in some way does exist, yet we cannot experience more than a slice of it and there’s no touching or seeing time. Time exists to us in a mind capable of remembering something happened (or at least theoretically) prior to the current moment. But I cannot go back and prove the past happened, all I have is remnant memories and signs. I find fascinating the discoveries of quantum mechanics and theories of black hole singularities, they definitely are a challenge to a strictly materialistic perspective.

    I categorize reality in parts: Physical reality that we share, a mental (mind) reality that is our own and the possibility of reality beyond those two prior. Science already allows us to predict dimensionality beyond the material universe. So, materialism is sort of like a modern version of geocentricism or more just explanation of a reality that is only a part rather than the whole of greater reality. The universe, like our mind, independent and yet interconnected with a greater whole.

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  4. I agree. I belive that reality is socially constructed. Just as you and I, the words we use and the the way in which we choose to percieve and experience. Although science presents itself as being completely objective, I stand by my statement that a mind can never escape from its own mind to view itself more objectively. Thus, as the whole is socially constructed, as are the parts. Science developes in response to our current understanding and technology. To state that anything is “true”, is quite naive as no one understands the whole thus I do not belive that anyone has the right to define its parts (in totality, as a definitive truth). I have come to understand my eyes as a lens through which I am able to see and experience this reality. Yet, because I am unaware of any other kind of reality I can not give an opinion on any realm beyond this. Whether my soul exists as an entity outside of my body or not, I do not know but I do feel that this experience, this life, is the only one. The quantum world definitely boggles my mind but I think I have some understanding on the subject. I have recognised that my thoughts have a significant power and influence over my perception and my reality. Understading this as my truth I can understand how the quantum realm exists. Also due to the fact that if you go further and further into space you are able to pick up various frequencies (tv and radio) that go back to the beginning of time. This has led me to the understanding that everything exists not in a material sense but rather as a combination of light, space and mass – occurring simultaneously at all times. If you havnt been exposed to the “double-slit experiment”, I suggest you have a look. It might give you a better understanding of my response and the quantum world. Fascinating.

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    • Yeah, the “double-slit experiment” is exactly what I had in mind in my mention of quantum mechanics, we seem to be on the same page. Interpretations vary, but I believe the fascination is shared and the implications are huge. It would seem our existence is as paradoxical as that of wave-particle duality. Perhaps we are a simultaneous ‘both’ that is inexplicable and impossible to reason with our own minds, yet simultaneous a knowable reality in our own mind? If there is an extra-dimensionality to our consciousness, a connection to truth beyond our observation, then it cannot be acquired by looking outward and only can be found looking inwards. More fascinating than what can be ‘observed’ or ‘proven’ is the possibility of more beyond it. I suppose it is the impetus to know more that makes you and I so similar despite our differences.

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      • Paradoxical indeed. Integrating my current knowledge it seems as though we ourselves are the split particle, being in the past, present and future at all times. The mechanism through which my thoughts indirectly dictate my reality, I feel as though I, myself, am jumping from one reality to the next. . If that makes sense? I dont believe that I exist to know the ultimate truth, as by defining such it would imply that everyone else’s truths are wrong. I believe that I am here to experience and I thank you for being a part of it!

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  5. Reblogged this on Think_and_be_aware and commented:
    A topic that started on the basis of which came first, “The chicken or the egg? “, leading to a rather interesting thought about reality and the quantum nature thereof. An interesting read indeed. I encourage you to participate in the discussion and expose me to your thoughts about the topic!

    Liked by 1 person

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