My paternal grandmother, of whom I still have the fondest of memories, was a smart, but poorly educated, illiterate woman who lived a relatively happy life in a small, poor Nigeria village called Iresi. She told me the most fascinating traditional Nigerian tales to help me understand the complex adult concepts that I would need to navigate the world of men. Concepts like Love and Hate, Greed and Desire, Good and Evil, War and Peace were explained through the (mis)adventures of Monkey, Tortoise, Hare and a host of other animals. I loved those myths and their “simple” explanations for why the sky is blue or the desert scorched or the river wide. I miss that simplicity.
Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Similarly, a former professor of mine said, “If you can’t explain it to your grandmother, then you don’t understand it.”
There is a beauty in simplicity that is so often ignored in favor of hard to understand jargon. In attempts to sound “spiritual,” much of the writing out there is nothing more than meaningless, jargon-laden gibberish. Take the following paragraph as an example:
The power of her manifested energies was so overwhelming that I felt a vibration deep within the core of my being that made it clear that I was standing in the presence of an enlightened being. My soul was overwhelmed by the majesty of her infinite glory, and I suddenly saw the deepest of inner truths wafting up from the vast wealth that dwells within the Void. I moved through oceans of celestial bliss until I, unworthy as I am, found myself standing on the edge of Moksha, basking in the light of eternity.
It certainly sounds…poetic, but what does it mean? How would you explain it to your grandmother? (Assuming your grandmother doesn’t hold a Ph.D. in theology.)
My grandmother was a deeply spiritual woman, first as an animist and later as a Christian. Yet, her spirituality never required the adherence to a lofty language of spirituality, but rather delighted in its simple tenets. Even the word “spirituality” is moving into that area of speech were it is practically meaningless. It could literally mean anything from going to church every Sunday, to bowing down before a statue of General Zod from the Superman movies. Not that there’s anything wrong with either of these “definitions,” but the first aim of communication, written or otherwise, is clarity…or it should be. Jargon presumes a common language, one that will alienate the vast majority of people who will likely not get it. Whenever jargon is used, you end up speaking to the “converted” rather than to those who may most need to hear what you have to say.
I am, of course, not suggesting the dumbing down of spiritual speech; the removal of jargon is not the same thing as dumbing down. Rather what I am advocating is a return to simplicity, before we knew all the ancient words and modern “spiritual” lingo that has, in a way, made much of what we read unintelligible.
The overreliance on jargon belies a need to sound “deep.” But truly “deep” people, like truly “cool” people, don’t rely on what they say to be who they are. They are just it. It is as simple as that.
There is a place for jargon, of course; for example, in introductory or explanatory text and articles. However in these sorts of writings it’s not jargon; they’re terms in need of definition. These terms become jargon when inserted into general conversation without any clarification. Or if they are so plentiful, they overwhelm the speaker’s intention. Somewhere in every jargon-laden article is the speaker’s original intention. Whittle away the excess until all that is left is the original intention…then say that.
People often say, in defense of their use of jargon, that there just isn’t any other way to say it. It’s just too complex, and requires equally complex terms to get the point across. I disagree. Any concept, no matter how long it took you to learn it, has a perfectly simple “real-life” correlate. Your job as the teacher or writer or imparter of knowledge is to find it. Sometimes you don’t even have to say anything at all, like the famous story of the Buddha holding up a flower in response to a disciple’s question. A flower. No words. No jargon. While I am not suggesting that all teaching is as simple as holding up a flower; I am suggesting that we should come as close to it as we can get. Jargon is the opposite. Jargon is the stomping of the flower into the ground with your heel while spouting gibberish about the meaning of life and the nature of all things. Just hold up the flower. Whoever is supposed to get it will get it.
I recently read an article written by a very erudite, published religious author. It was loaded with beautiful words regarding the spiritual life and the spiritual path…it was gibberish. And I do not mean gibberish in the sense that some might consider, say, a Zen Koan, gibberish; but in the sense that this article, due to it’s convolution, inspire more questions than answers—and not in a good way.
To be fair, there were a number of favorable comments. But it’s not much of a stetch to see why people would take the gibberish of a published author for brilliance. After all, no one wants to be the first to tell the emperor that he is, in fact, bare-bummed in public.
My overall point is that jargon, except in the most technical of situations, should be avoided. There may be times when a “spiritual” word or phrase is necessary, but if each and every paragraph is loaded with them, it calls the author’s motive into question. Is the point to share with the reader a meaningful experience or words? Or is it something else? If it is the former, then keep it simple. However, if it is to prove that you “know” something, then your personal journal may be a more appropriate venue.
The benchmark of good “spiritual” and other writing has always been “keep it simple.” Or, to paraphrase my ex-professor, “will grandmother have any idea what you’re talking about?” I resolve we keep it simple. Who’s with me?