Our culture has its own quirks, whether we notice them or not – in fact, the ones we are blissfully unaware of are the ones that have the potential to make the most silent impact.
Our language defines us, whether we choose to let it or not. In our first few months of life, billions of synapses form in our brain and the ones we don’t use gradually fade. We have the ability to speak any language when we’re born but by the time we’re a few years old, if we haven’t heard certain sounds or words, they become more difficult to learn later on. This becomes a grounding principle when we realise that our words are our primary means of expression.
It is one of life’s great mysteries: the feelings, emotions and experiences that we don’t have words to describe. It is why music is so formative – it transcends language and can speak and evoke response without the need for words. But words are also telling – if we have many words for something, we value it enough to try to describe it as best we can. For example, we have one word for rice. To us, it’s rice whether it’s in the field, in a bag or on a plate. But in Asia, you have padi, beras and nasi – the distinction between each is important enough to those who speak that language to make sure they are adequately represented.
So why is it that we only have one word for love? And one word for happiness?
“The Greeks had a word for the feeling one has when one is happy: makarios. It is a feeling of contentment, when one knows one’s place in the world and is satisfied with that place. If your life has been fortunate, you should feel makarios.” (Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, p.75)
It is a feeling that is so profound and important that the Greeks gave it its own word.
The authors go on to say: “In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that if you are a peacemaker, then you are makarios. Since English doesn’t have a word for this feeling, translators have struggled to find one. What do you call it when you feel happy, content, balanced, harmonious and fortunate? Well, translators have concluded, you are blessed... Jesus meant, ‘If you are a peacemaker, then you are in your happy place.’ It just doesn’t work well in English. Alas, here is the bigger problem: maybe the reason we North Americans struggle to find makarios in our personal lives is because we don’t have a word in our native language to denote it.”
Our expectation of one word being able to sum up our current emotion and the important things in our life, also influences how we interpret phrases and whole sentences.
“Paul struggles for a Greek word to describe the fruit (singular) of the Spirit. He describes it as a ‘love-joy-peace-patience-kindness-goodness-faithfulness-gentleness-self-control kind of fruit’ (Gal 5:22). Paul is not giving us a list of various fruits, from which we may pick a few. Rather, he gives us a list of words that circle around the one character of Spirit-filled life he is trying to describe.” (Misreading Scripture… p.74)
I will continue to enjoy those moments that words cannot describe and appreciate them for their awe-someness. I will also continue trying my best to use the words at my disposal to articulate thoughts and emotions. All the while, I acknowledge that sometimes, I need to experience and see beyond the words to the indescribable beauty of life and truth in the Bible and all around me every day.