This past Christmas break I flew to Wisconsin for a two week holiday with my family. I had visions of me trouncing on things I needed to catch up on like visions of sugar plums dancing in my head. But when my flight touched down I turned on my computer and it froze. I rebooted it and it failed. My computer was busted. My brother picked me up and we drove to my dad’s house in the Wisconsin countryside where I turned on my smart device to find there was no WiFi. Later, we went to my mom’s house and there wasn’t enough cell reception to make a phone call. I took out my backup laptop and found the modem for her WiFi was incompatible with my outdated laptop. It was official; I had been inadvertently placed in a detox program. At that point, I would have gone for a drive to clear my head but I had no car. I was stranded in rural Wisconsin going through withdrawals.
“I’m going outdoors for a while.”
Out. Of. Doors.
Have you ever said or heard a word and then thought, “What a funny word?”
Merriam-Webster defines outdoors as “outside a building : in or into the open air”
“Outdoors” has come to encapsulate the vast world which exists outside of the physical walls we have constructed around ourselves. Outdoors or, if used positively, the outdoors often implies wilderness or anywhere in nature that is separated from urban society with both a certain deprivation of conveniences and amenities as well as a separated physical location for recreation and restoration of oneself.
Isn’t it kind of weird that the word we created to represent our original natural environment implies that our new natural environment is to be within a building? The very use of the word outdoors implies we start within and must go out from something (our self-constructed walls) in order to return to our original, natural environment. We don’t exist outside or outdoors. Instead, we exist inside or indoors.
I think it is unfortunate that the word we chose for our original, physical surroundings is commonly understood with the base of a negative word. The English word “out” comes from the Old English word “utian” that means “to expel or put out.” We must expel ourselves to make it back to our natural surroundings. We must expel ourselves from our own walls and then expel ourselves from our conveniences, amenities, comforts and addictions.
Elizabeth Spelke, a psychologist at the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, did a study to find that kids perceive simple concepts like the color “blue” and the physical object “wall” separately and are unable to connect the concepts together in their head as a single, cohesive phrase/entity (i.e. a blue wall). Language development allows those separate words/ideas to come together in a cohesive phrase/unit. In other words, language is the key to connecting concepts internally. Language is such a powerful tool that it not only enables communication between two or more persons but is also key to communication inside one person. Without certain words we cannot think in certain ways or understand certain things.*
As we invent and use more words we are expanding our toolset to not only better communicate with others but to better understand everything around us. For instance, Shakespeare invented- or at least was the first to use in print- many words (unaware, uncomfortable, unhand, undress, unreal, uneducated, unclogged, unsolicited, unswayed, unchanging, unappeased, eyedrops, eyeball, eyesore) and phrases (what’s done is done, dead as a doornail, forever and a day, every dog has it’s day, fainthearted, forgone conclusion, mind’s eye, knock knock who’s there, love is blind, all is well that ends well) we still use today.* Can you imagine not having these words and phrases? Indeed it is hard to imagine the ineffableness we have freed ourselves from by cultivating these words and phrases. They have helped us to understand and communicate many things since then.
Currently, I have two friends who are in stalemate argument about language (or the lack of language). My friend Nate listens to audiobooks on his commute to and from work. He talks about the books he has finished as books he has read. My other friend Matt insists to Nate that he has never read those books. Strictly speaking, he has not read them (he has listened to them) but our concept of books has been so limited to visually reading that we have no adequate verb to describe what happens when we engage with an audiobook (something between listening and reading). Here we can see that a new word is needed (perhaps audilect). We need to invent new words to fill the new blank spaces that technologies provide.
Ultimately, language is alive; it changes and grows, adapting over time. We are continually creating and shaping it. It reflects back to us what we consider important.
If I told you that you were worthless you would be insulted, right? Or how about useless? Or lazy? If I call you worthless I am telling you that you have no value. Value is an economic term that signifies importance. If I call you useless I am telling you that you cannot do anything; that your ability lacks everything. Useless is a term of productivity. If you are useless, you are not productive and, therefore, not needed by society. Or so we are told.
If you are annoying you are an inconvenience to someone. You are hindering them from worshipping convenience.
If you are slow you are causing someone to be inefficient. You are hindering them from worshipping efficiency.
If you are hazardous you are causing someone to feel unsafe. You are hindering them from worshiping security.
If you are worthless you are without value. You are hindering society from worshiping profitability.
If you are useless you are completely unproductive. You are hindering society from worshipping productivity.
Maybe it was re-orchestration of chemicals in my brain going through detox or maybe fresh air and silence is just good for clear thinking. Either way, when I was going for a walk outside I thought it wouldn’t be so bad to hear someone say, “Lee, you are a worthless, useless, annoying, slow and hazardous human being.“
These insults are telling of what we view as culturally important. Western culture deems progress, productivity, efficiency, convenience, security and comfort as some of the most important virtues. A lot of these stem from our overall importance placed on economics.
Rebecca Solnit talks about how language is being developed around certain economic means: “When I drive from here to there, speed, privacy, control, and safety are easy to claim. When I walk, what happens is more vague, more ambiguous… I am out in the world. It’s exercise, though not so quantifiably as on a treadmill in a gym with a digital readout… Many more benefits are more subjective, more ethereal — and more wordy. You can’t describe them in a few familiar phrases; and if you’re not practiced at describing them, you may not be able to articulate them at all. It is difficult to value what cannot be named. The gains [of buying and driving a car] are simple and we know the adjectives: convenient, efficient, safe, fast, predictable, productive… Since someone makes money every time you buy a car or fill it up, there’s a whole commercial language built around getting us to drive; there’s little or no language promoting the free act of walking.”**
Perhaps, as Christians, part of our calling is to invent and cultivate new words in order to counteract the co-opting of language that bends it forever toward consumeristic means. Perhaps we must bring into this world words that describe not only the things that are healthy and holistic for us but also the things we must do to orient ourselves towards Christ as our center instead of slowly being pulled off to the side by progress, productivity, efficiency, convenience, security and comfort. Ultimately, at least, we need to be aware of these cultural virtues and their ability to color our thinking and distract us from loving God and one another.
Are you a worthless, useless, annoying, slow and hazardous human being?
Maybe we shouldn’t take cultural insults so personally. Or maybe we should go out of our way to become useless once in a while. Or try being worthless for a day each week; isn’t this part of the purpose of Sabbath since, even if we are worthless by the world’s standards, we are still loved by God?
Maybe, to begin to think clearly, we simply need to spend some time outdoors- expelling ourselves from the environment we have constructed around ourselves that bears down on us from all directions with ulterior agendas for our lives.
* Radiolab, Words, http://www.radiolab.org/story/91725-words/
** Rebecca Solnit, Finding Time, Orion Magazine, https://orionmagazine.org/article/a-fistful-of-time/