Adults unavoidably drag their children from the Garden with each word, conversation, or story they relate to them. We teach children to talk, think, compare, plan and analyze. And as we do, their innocence falls away like petals from a flower, to be replaced by the thorns and stiff branches of fear, self-criticism, and pretense. We cannot prevent this gradual transformation, nor can we soften it. Our children must enter into the terrifying world of verbal knowledge. They must become like us.Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, by Hayes, Strosahl and Wilson
Based upon a recommendation from a reader, I’ve started reading Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (aka ACT) by Stephen Hayes and company. While I have some disagreements with some of the later material in the book (which I will get to in a later post), I do think that they are spot on when it comes to their diagnosis of the cause of much of the soul-suffering that is endemic to modern life.
Keeping in mind that the first Noble Truth of Buddhism is that life is suffering (see this post), it’s interesting that Hayes et al have identified a reason. There is an interesting dilemma in blaming language for human suffering, which is that, without language, people would probably be spending their days avoiding predators while trying to grab some berries from a bush. So, without language (and its internalization as thought), they would be miserable but they wouldn’t know it.
And thus we come to the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Many (or even perhaps most) of us have fleeting recollections of life when we were just becoming verbal and when everything seemed joyous and perfect. As we gained an ability with language (aka grew up), we were expected by our caretakers to take on more an more responsibility (aka act your age) when all that we wanted to do was to run and play. Thus most of us have a vague memory of our own personal Garden of Eden.
According to ACT, modern human suffering is inherent in our ability to symbolize things with language. Essentially, as I see it, as we develop language (and the embedded logic that goes with it) we realize that nothing is a simple as we think it is. All of this is caught in the lyrics of The Logical Song by Supertramp:
When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical
And all the birds in the trees, well they’d be singing so happily
Oh joyfully, playfully watching me
But then they send me away to teach me how to be sensible
Logical, oh responsible, practical
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable
Oh clinical, oh intellectual, cynical
But at night, when all the world’s asleep
The questions run so deep
For such a simple man
Won’t you please tell me what we’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd
Please tell me who I am
The Logical Song by Supertramp
As I have alluded to elsewhere, you can’t both have knowledge and still live in the Garden of Eden. It’s not a cosmic trick from God, it’s a logical necessity.
And so we come right back around to the mystic’s solution: We must be in the world of language, but we don’t need to be controlled by it.
Whereof one can not speak, thereof one must be silent.Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
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IMAGE SOURCE: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adam_and_Eve_Chased_out_of_the_Terrestrial_Paradise_(Jean-Achille_Benouville).jpg ATTRIBUTION: Jean-Achille Benouville [Public domain]