Some years ago, I listened to a talk by cognitive psychologist Lera Boroditsky about how language shapes the way we think. Lera talked about an Aboriginal community in Australia that uses cardinal directions instead of left and right. An example of using this in everyday life would be to say, “There’s an insect approaching your southeast leg,” or, “I think I left my water bottle northwest of my desk.” I found it fascinating how everything about the way they think is fashioned by this – even the passage of time has an east-west direction. I’ve been intrigued by this talk and it’s one of those things that’s always on the back of my mind while navigating my world as an Indian transplant in the United States.
Tamil is my native language, and an ancient language. There are many English words, especially from the last 100 years or so, that do not have a Tamil equivalent. Computer, nail polish, lipstick, telephone, cellphone, and internet are simply spelled out using Tamil characters. There are also many Tamil words that do not have a direct translation in English. A recent interaction with my children brought Lera Boroditsky’s talk back to mind. They asked me how I would say “I love you” in Tamil. It caused me to pause and think about the many Tamil words for love. Paasam, for example, conveys the compassionate love a parent feels for a child. Kaadhal is reserved for romantic love. Anbu is unconditional love, the love God feels for the world that He sends His only Son to die for us. Anbu is given without any expectation of return. Nesam is the devoted love we feel for friends and people we feel close to. Sagodharam is sibling love. Bakthi is devoted love toward God, that would be evidenced by works. Aasai denotes love for an object you desire to have, like chocolate. This is not an exhaustive list. I miss speaking Tamil, with all its nuances. I can’t help but wonder how different the landscape of my boys’ thoughts about love is, shaped by very different words and conversations than the ones I had growing up.
I recently had the joy of reading Lore Wilbert’s book, Handle with Care, which made me ponder how my thoughts around the word ‘love’ shape the way I embody love to others. Lore Wilbert writes with kindness and compassion about the necessity of embodied souls using touch to communicate love. In one chapter, she makes this observation:
In Asian, African, European, and many other cultures, for instance, it is customary for platonic friends to hold hands or kiss each other on the cheek as a form of affection, where the affection is simply that – affection… It’s merely a display of love and honor and warmth within friendship, much like Peter tells us to do in the New Testament with one another, and many characters in the Old Testament do with one another as well. Within modern American culture, though, the confusion is rampant and most of us are too quick to ask, “Am I attracted to you?” instead of “How do I touch in a way that is intimate, pure, sincere, and godly?”Lore Wilbert in Handle With Care
Lore urges us to think outside of the cultural rules we have for touching – the brief side hugs and pats, leaving room for the Holy Spirit, or staying on opposite sides of the room. She explains how rules convey fear. They say, “I’m afraid something could happen between us,” or, “I’m afraid of what others will think,” and in doing so we dehumanize others. In the Bible, Paul tells Timothy to treat people in a familiar way, treating older men as fathers, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters. When I first moved to the United States, a friend remarked that I was very comfortable with affection. Her tone implied confusion and I learned to withhold affection from others, out of fear of how it would be received. It wasn’t until I listened to Lera Boroditsky’s talk that I realized how differently my thinking has been shaped by language.
I grew up addressing people outside of my family with familial titles. The tailor who sewed my clothes was “brother”, the woman who took the order at the restaurant was “sister”. I don’t flinch at Paul’s words to Timothy, but I can now understand how uncomfortable this can be in practice for my own children, or anyone not formed by these habits.
When God divided humans through different languages at the tower of Babel as consequence for our rebellion, our fallen natures combined with different tongues and dialects created the perfect storm for suspicion and disagreement. But from the beginning, God has intended all men to unite to bring Him glory and for people from every nation and tribe to worship Him. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out on all people, and everyone heard the gospel in his own language. God shows us that we are not to be divided over language and culture, but united as brothers and sisters in our common faith in Christ. This is why Lore Wilbert’s book, Handle with Care, is essential reading especially as we all come out of pandemic isolation. We are a world full of people united by common grief, and we have an amazing opportunity to have our minds and actions reshaped by truth instead of fear. Lore urges and challenges us to discard culture’s lies about touch and learn the language of embodied care so we can dignify our neighbor and fellow human and love them well.
My deeply idealistic and romantic heart longs for the world to be such a sanctuary. While I wait, I can still craft my home to be a haven of embodied care. Perhaps loving our neighbor well begins with handling our littlest and nearest neighbors with care. As parents, Lore urges us to meet children at their vulnerability. Perhaps it begins with taking a knee when speaking to them, laying our hands on them to bless them, and reaching our hands out to them to draw them nearer to us. We would do well to ponder Lore’s question: What if love embodied means we should touch others as if they are imprinted with the very image of God?
Featured image by tirachardz