Reality is Discourse

We can think of our interactions with the physical world as a conversation, in which the sensory input is like the arbitrary symbols of language, and our conclusions about the world are like our interpretations of linguistic symbols. If I touch a tree, the rough feel of the bark is just data before the senses, but I find that sensation pleasant, I remember other trees, I think about trees, I imagine a forest. Similarly, when I say “I’ll have a double Americano please,” I’m simply making sounds with my mouth that have no real relationship to the ideas they express, in the hopes that the person hearing it will imagine coffee drinks, imagine shots of espresso, imagine the idea of two-ness, and so on.

Imagining reality as discourse can help us break out of heavily ingrained patterns of thinking about our observations. Just as we think about what a person has said to us and what it might “mean,” we also might begin to wonder what our experiences “mean.” This act can have startling effects. In its simplest form, it is to imagine that one is reading omens in the flight of birds, random sounds, and so on. I remember once that a long period of silent prayer in a park was interrupted by someone on their cell phone walking by, saying “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you. I know it’s hard now, but it’ll get easier.” I took it as a direct response to my prayer.

We can also take this farther. Just as in analyzing poetry and verbal art, we imagine “what could this mean?” and don’t stop when we have just one answer, we can watch our reactions to events and try to interpret them differently. For example, next time you see someone who looks “weird” – funny hair, or piercing – or, if you’re like me, the next time you see someone who looks “normal” – suit, tie, and so on – imagine what other interpretations you can offer. Maybe the man with a mohawk is a social worker dressed to appeal to his clients; maybe he’s going to a costume party; maybe he’s a Native American reclaiming his culture. The man with a suit might be an artist going to a gallery showing – what might his art look like? Or maybe he’s a woman in drag – what’s her life like? This exercise helps break us out of One Single Interpretation Syndrom. It helps cure prejudice, and also it makes long waits for the bus more bearable.

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