Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Meaningless words

I think this is the second time in my life this has happened to me, and I don't really understand how it happens, or if there is (or should be), any cure. About all I can do is document the phenomenon itself.

One of the fundamental gifts of our species is language, allowing us to communicate ideas and most importantly aspects of ourselves, our identities to each other. Language relies heavily on symbolism - a word, an image, a sound or a gesture is given meaning when two or more people recognize it as a true symbol of some action, thing, or relationship. For language to be a successful means of communication, it is essential for both parties to believe that a certain symbol truly stands for this one other thing. In other words, to communicate, at a certain level we have to trust that what someone is saying to us really means what we think it means.

If this linguistic code of honor is broken by lies, and by the twisting of words and phrases to mean something other than they were originally intended to mean, the ability to communicate through language begins to decay. The words themselves are still there, but their meaning(s) are lost, either because we no longer believe in their meaning, or we stop listening to their message. (Humanities flash-back: An old Greek Dude named Thucydides documents this phenomenon, and attributes the rapid collapse of an entire society to its effects).

What can happen to ancient Greek societies can also happen at smaller scales to friendships. It happened to me first several years ago, when in a bewildering couple of days I went from having what I thought was a really good friendship with someone, to the point where this person barely, and begrudgingly will even recognize my existence. I still don't understand how things went the way that they did, but somehow, my friend decided that I saw all human relationships as a game and friendships as an intellectual, but not emotional, connection. (not at all how I see myself). Somehow that also got entwined with a deep mistrust in anything I said. After that, I could see a good friendship going down the tubes, and I had no way of even trying to save it, because anything I said was mistrusted; my words were rendered meaningless. Pushed over the cliff, and no way back up.

I haven't really thought about this in quite some time; I couldn't explain it, I couldn't understand it, and it hurt, so I put it away.

But I'm slowly realizing that a similar thing is developing in another of my friendships, where our interactions have grown almost formulaic. Pretty much any response on either side is predictable. Conversations inevitably feature the same topics. Each person shares the same frustrations and challenges, and gets the same, expected, customary responses. It's not that the words are being deemed as lies (so far as I know), but if you know what will be said to something before you even ask it, then it's really easy to stop listening to the words, and to let the meaning behind the words leech away, until only brittle skeletons of meaning remain. If communication, and hence language, is the glue that binds people together in friendships, and this language gets a severe case of osteoporosis, what's left of the friendship?

I don't know what to think here. This is certainly not the case with even a large majority of my friendships, but I think it is very real, and occurs most commonly with very close friends, the ones I communicate with practically daily. Is it just the result of too much communication cheapening the value of words? Wear and tear due to over use? Is there any panacea for this weakness, or is it the case that the only solution to an unavoidable conclusion is to let the dissolution occur?

Right now I'm frustrated and tempted to think that I should make my excuses, shove off, and be content in later times with good memories from earlier days.

1 comment:

sarcozona said...

I can definitely fall into that pattern with people - having a similar conversation repeatedly. I actually think it's important to do. A lot of times I don't really have anything to say, but when I'm trying to maintain a connection with someone who I don't see, regular contact keeps the bond in good enough shape that when I DO have something to say I'm comfortable contacting them.