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We may know immeasurably more about the universe than our ancestors did, and yet it increasingly seems that they knew something more essential about it than we do, something that escapes us.

The same thing is true of the nature of ourselves. The more thoroughly all our organs and their functions, their internal structure and the biochemical reactions that take place within them, are described, the more we seem to fail to grasp the spirit, purpose, and meaning of the system that they create together and that we experience as our unique self.

—Vaclav Havel

I have always been fascinated with language: How it is used, what meaning we craft with our words publicly or privately, and what significance these words carry into the world. Many of the words we use to express a particular concept have a very different meaning when their origins are explored. Take the word wealth, which we commonly connect with financial abundance or riches, and which from the Middle English is more closely tied to “happiness” or “well-being.”  

We’ve become very good at compartmentalizing our knowledge and our language, often at the expense of seeing the whole and making broader connections. Although it’s repeated in different ways, and especially around this time of year, we seem to forget that true wealth is more about context and relationship—to oneself, a community, a place—than it is about our net worth.  While we’re on the topic, the word worth actually derives from the Old English meaning “homestead” or “enclosed place.” 

How is it that we can reclaim some of the meaning behind our language and in doing this build a greater sense of well-being and understanding? It’s not simply words that we are using: we are creating a shared experience. And if wealth is being created in one sense by producing abundance in one place while leaving a legacy of scarcity in another, I would suggest that this isn’t what is meant by true wealth. However, it’s the meaning that words such as wealth and worth have acquired that keep us limited in our sense of what might truly be possible.

In surrendering to the common understanding of such words, we miss something essential and more ancient about what they are bidding when spoken. Can we strive—not only during a season commonly associated with gratitude, sharing and caring, but always—to listen beneath what is being said for a deeper meaning?  

November 2006