A starving lemur makes her way slowly through the grasses in a sun dried corner of Madagascar. Dry seasons are normal, but this year is particularly harsh. Her troop is moving both wearily and warily forward with the dual goal of finding food and avoiding predators.
Her infant struggles to cling to her belly as they make their way through the bone dry twigs and barren patches of scorched earth. She has no more milk to offer. Her body has used up its fat reserves and is now devouring muscle. She is dehydrated. The troop is tired, but it can’t afford to stop or let its guard down because the predators are ready to seize the opportunity. For them it’s a time of plenty.
The infant has no more strength and drops softly to the ground. Its mother, with little strength of her own left, is now faced with the torturous conflict between staying with her baby and moving on with the troop. She knows she can’t do both. She doesn’t have the strength to carry her child, and to stay means death for both of them. Her hunger, her need for the safety of the troop and her mothering instinct are waging war with each other inside of her.
She calls out to her troop to try to draw back the safety of numbers, but they soldier on. She indecisively circles toward the troop and back again to her child. As the minutes pass and she grows more conflicted over this terrible choice. Reluctantly, she moves deliberately in the direction of her troop. The baby lemur cries out with its remaining breaths, she looks back as she is leaving. The choice, painful as it is, and as certain as it must be, is to leave her child behind.
This drama and many more like it play out every day without a word. Lemurs can’t read, write or talk – yet without the means to wrap her situation in anything we might call a verbal veneer, this lemur is no less aware and feels no less turmoil than what might take place in a human drama. The fact that a creature cannot apply a verbal paint to their situation doesn’t diminish the essence of experience.
Our ability to verbalize our state of being to some degree – is a far smaller a portion of ourselves than we commonly give it credit for. If we probe the entire landscape of the living further and deeper than our own thoughts and skins allow, we can begin to glimpse the dominance of non-verbal awareness as the overwhelming portion of what we all know, and experience as life.
A crocodile stalking its prey, a mayfly looking for a mate… are clear evidence that the non-verbal portions of identity expressed through all biological organisms is the most powerful driver of experience. Awareness, the vast majority of which is wordless, cascades throughout all living things – and an inability to frame experience in abstract symbols does not diminish the experience itself. They are no less aware merely because they lack this thin blanket of words we wrap ourselves in.
Even less than the thinnest of coatings on our lives, our verbal state of awareness is often an irrelevant distraction, a deceiver and a sideshow to what is really going on with our own unspoken identity. Many of us are driven by powerful emotional undercurrents spoken in an entirely different language that communicates through behaviors and is unattached to our verbal state of being. We can live our whole lives deluded in our thoughts as we are actually living out unstated life goals that remain hidden from our verbal lens. These emotional drivers can direct our lives and our words can be diminished to feeble tools to scratch at such things as artificial comfort and false understanding on what really lies beyond our capacity to understand in a verbal sense.
Without clear vision we cannot move with intention, neither can we understand the forces that drive our experience. Facing reality by verbal means is of great value. It is also necessary to steer our experience effectively, but it takes an accurate lens that is built on the bravery to face things as they are, and not as we want them to be. It also takes the discipline to work within the framework of “what is” do actually affect what “can be”.
A step in the direction of leading an intentional life is recognizing that our identity is much more than what we are able to capture with our symbols. In fact, symbolic languages can have a pretty drastic downside if they are not calibrated by a firm awareness of what is truly going on. They can be easily conflated with any number of superficial artifacts that hide the whole picture and render us a blind navigator and a spectator in our own lives.
Words can generate their own false image and lead us to falter in our capacity to live intentionally. The most important goal we can set is to become aware of the ones we’re already working toward as we’re looking the other way… lost in our own little words.