Someone asked me the other day, “What do you want?” And my brain locked up, unable to answer. I realized that when I find myself trying to verbalize want of something, I come up woefully short. I’ve decided that is because I’m a finite creature stuck in a world of time, with a language that is woefully incomplete. I’m struggling (sorry, Jessica) to develop a language set and habits of speaking that implicitly respect time. I’d like to petition the residents of Dictionopolis to christen two new verbs “wantnow” and “wanthen”.
I’ve been fascinated by linguistics because consideration of other languages makes me aware of shortcomings of English, my native tongue. I know a tiny bit about Hebrew, with its rich nouns. Greek and its pervasive verb tenses. Chinese, with a word for every nuance, and German with its run-on nouns. One of the biggest omissions I find in languages is a complete concept of time. The concept of time has always been external to the syntax and structure. It lives as a language external – something the language can be used to speak about, but I don’t know of any structure that embeds language internally to its frame.
For you Computer Science majors, this internal/external thing is like Object Oriented Programming. Back in 1986, before there was such a thing, I used Pascal to implement an object model. It was explicit and crude and took pages of code. Later, we received new languages that had the concept and infrastructure built in the syntax. They’re smooth and implicit and we gained a vocabulary of “methods” and “instances” and “objects”. What was done externally became internal to the compiler.
Those of you who have dealt with encryption, government secrets, and intelligence gathering, you might recognize the concept of “message internals” and “message externals.” Without even reading the message, a message external already says something. Check the section titled “Support to the Pacific Fleet” in this analysis of Pearl Harbor events, any description of COMINT.
Saying nothing, you communicate a lot with message externals. Imagine you’re married, two kids, and they get into a fight. In a stern voice, you say, “Johnny, come here Dad needs to speak to you.” In context, and simply because the message exists, it already communicates something. I’ll bet Johnny didn’t even need to hear the rest of the message internals. Some guy asking you out that you’d rather not spend time with? Say nothing and return no phone calls. I’ll bet your message externals will have an effect.
Balancing interpersonal message internals and externals, BTW, is another topic rich in Christianity and grace. In short, maybe all our message internals should be loving, even if our message externals have to interface to the world.
Developing an internal structure of time into my language is important because time is an unappreciated huge parameter of life itself. Time can kill or allow to live. It has social moral implications. It can redeem lost souls.
When thinking about issues of death, a line from Princess Bride comes to mind: “Good night Wesley. Sleep well. Very likely I’ll kill you in the morning.” Indeed, expecting death perpetually tomorrow gives one a presence and immediacy and vibrancy for today. In the movie “Castaway”, Tom Hanks survives with a horizon of hours. Each day, he wakes up to breath one more time, unable to even kill himself because of the expectations and dreams of what he cannot retrieve.
Time’s moral implications on a Christian college campus such as Hope will bear down on a majority of students before they graduate. When I was a college student, a friend freely engaged in sexual relations with a girl friend because, “We love each other so much it’s as if we’re already married.” But they weren’t – not yet. Time slowly levied its wedge into their lives, and as is often the case, what we think now about tomorrow never became today. They never were married and the outcome of what they had done had large moral and social fall-out.
Lastly, implicit into the redemption message of God are forbearance and patience with time that allow each person’s soul time to respond and reply to the witnesses set before them. Romans 2:4 admonishes that human impatience to judge shows “contempt for the riches of His kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance.”
THEREFORE, here are some questions to ask yourself. If you don’t intentionally do this, the limits of the English language will allow you to continue in blind terpitude. Do better for yourself. Actively think about “wantnow” and “wanthen” verbs whenever you use the word “want”.
- “I want an iPod” – When? Newer models will be out tomorrow. Internet radio sites are not enough? If you follow your wantnow desires, what are you giving up later that can’t spend the money on when you wanthen something else?
- “Do you want to supersize that?” – Uh, yea, the fries taste great. I also want to take care of the body God’s given me. Wantnow says yes. Wanthen says no.
- “I want to redeem a relationship with my family.” – There is a want that manifests itself at the setting sun, pining for what cannot be. There is also a want that drives an immediate planned act, with hope and expectation for what is not yet seen. If you wantnow to have a good relationship, maybe you’ll do something. If you wanthen, maybe you’ll quietly enjoy a few more sunsets first.
- “I want to sleep with my new boyfriend.” – Wantnow is pretty vivid, isn’t it? If you make a choice to proceed, what do you wanthen?
- “I want to get a good grade.” – I wantnow to hang out with friends and watch a movie. If you wanthen good grades, can you pull motivation from that future time into today?
I have been paralyzed into indecision too often when confronted with questions of “What do I want?” Maybe that’s because the English language didn’t give me enough words to ask the right questions. I’m experimenting with my new verbs wantnow and wantthen. Let me know if they help you!