Dear Donagh,

… I counted the word ‘experience’ three times in your ad for a course in the Dominican retreat centre….  I have a hard time with that word, I'm afraid!  Everyone is talking about experience now.  It seems to be the ‘in’ word.  How did we manage before?  The breaking point for me was when I heard a neighbour’s five-year-old saying to her pal, “You have to experience it for yourself!”  They were talking about ice-cream!  That's when I realized that I had to write to you.  I appreciate the work you do in your retreat centre, but I don’t think you are helping yourselves by following fashion and using buzz words and in-words like that.  They may appeal to some people, but they put some of us right off.  I'm waiting for the day when you start using the word ‘passionate’!!!  Everything has to be passionate now.  I hope you never go that far…!  Wishing you all the best.  Mairin

Dear Mairin,

Thanks for your letter.  When it’s a choice between publishing one that praises us and one that challenges us, heroically I always pick the latter. 

Of course, I want to say a good word for experience.  I know I'm not the first to do so.  “Today we read the book of experience,” wrote St Bernard of Clairvaux, approvingly.  He was born in the year 1090 AD.

I see how that word can become annoying – like the other word, ‘passionate’, that you mention.  Any word that we double down on becomes irksome after a while.  What it tries to deliver to your door is always new, but we can become tired of it as we can become tired of a particular postman.   I'll take your advice and look for other ways of saying things. 

This is a chance to reflect a little on how difficult it is to convey the particular.  All words are abstract, even the supposedly concrete ones like ‘tree’, ‘river’, ‘mountain’…. I made a PowerPoint presentation that consists of photographs of my favourite trees; they are of every shape and size and colour.  But, mischievously, the very first slide is the definition of a tree from the Oxford Dictionary, white words on a black background, very stark: ‘A woody perennial plant, typically having a single stem or trunk growing to a considerable height and bearing lateral branches at some distance from the ground.’  “Now that we know what a tree is,” I say, “we don’t need to see the pictures.”  But my victims always insist on seeing the pictures!  The next slide is of a dead tree.  It satisfies the definition just as well as a living one….  No, there’s no substitute for looking at individual trees.  No definition, no amount of description, will ever convey the wonder of the real individual thing. 

Taking it a step further: no picture can convey the sound, smell, taste or touch of a tree.  You just have to go out and meet one face to face.  In other words, you have to “perceive, apprehend, be sensible of, be conscious or aware of, respond to….”    No, Roget, and Windows thesaurus, I'm going back to the dreaded word ‘experience’.You have to experience a tree. 

Here’s another illustration.  I'm sure you have often given traffic directions to someone who was as unfamiliar with some area as you were familiar.  When you use the words ‘turn right’, you see familiar buildings all around: shops you have shopped in, crossings you have crossed, cafés where you used to meet your boyfriend, particular windows and doorways and chimneys…. But the other person sees nothing but an abstract right-angle.  Speaking from experience is like describing a street you are perfectly familiar with.  Speaking without it is like drawing a line on a piece of paper.   

There’s another redeeming feature about experience: it is always in the present.  A remembered experience is a memory, not an experience.  (I knew a man whose nickname was ‘I Remember’.)  Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) wrote: “There exists only the present instant… a Now which is always and endlessly new.  There is no yesterday nor any tomorrow, but only Now, as it was a thousand years ago and as it will be a thousand years hence.”  Anything that helps to keep us glued to that must be good for us.  Everything that we do, everything that happens, is nowNow is when all the talking and thinking stops, and we get up and go about the business of living our life – or ‘experiencing’ it, if you can bear to put it that way.    

But talking about experience is not experience, so I had better stop!

Thanks for your letter, Máirín. 



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