What happens when you cannot give words to a profound personal experience?
Several months ago I introduced you to John Koenig, creator of the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. This is a compendium of invented words to express common but strangely powerful experiences for which we don’t yet have words.
Although there is no video with today’s word, exulansis, he defines it this way:
the tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because people are unable to relate to it—whether through envy or pity or simple foreignness—which allows it to drift away from the rest of your life story, until the memory itself feels out of place, almost mythical, wandering restlessly in the fog, no longer even looking for a place to land.
I think this is often true of people who have had a spiritual experience that means a great deal to them at the time, but when they start trying to describe their experience to others, they discover that words are inadequate.
I talk about this in my video, Explaining a Spiritual Experience when I say that there are three important things about any spiritual or peak experience:
- First, and most important, there is the experience itself.
- Then, there is the process of incorporating that experience into our view of the world and the need to decide what it means to us, personally.
- Finally, we enter the next stage, which is what we tell others about that experience.
It is that third aspect of our experience that gives us the greatest problem. Why? Because we can only tell others that it was “like this” or “like that,” knowing all the while that words cannot convey the actual experience. How do you accurately “explain” the taste of a banana to someone who has never tasted one?
It is clear that words cannot express the core of a spiritual or peak experience. It may be that some people will get close to understanding what happened to us. But there is always a good chance that we’ll be misunderstood, especially by people who haven’t had similar experiences. So we often do just what John Koenig observes; we allow the experience to drift away, unable to keep it close to our heart.
Unless we have a way to hold onto that experience, to repeat it in some way, we can lose the impact of whatever it was that happened to us long ago.