‘My car is red.’ ‘Big deal,’ you may say, ‘my car is blue, green or silver.’ On the face of it, ‘my car is red’ simply sounds like a point for information, principally about the colour of the car. But is that really all it conveys? The relationship between language, culture and personal constructs is complex and profound. ‘My car is red’ conveys all kind of hidden personal and cultural messages.
‘My’ relates to ‘I’. It says something about how I see myself in relation to others, my ‘self’ as separate and distinct from others. It’s a culturally-constructed ‘I’. ‘My’ says something about possession. I consider the car in some way ‘belongs’ to me. This notion of possession, of belonging, is a cultural construct. It’s about the relationship between ‘me’ and ‘other’.
It points beyond my personal beliefs, my personal constructs, to a wider cultural context, how the relationship between people and objects is perceived and organised in my cultural environment. It has political and economic implications, touches on issues of rights and legality, shared implicit values, rules and behaviours that the culture I live within accepts and endorses.
‘Car’. At a literal level, I picture the car and I see an object that has a particular function, a mode of transport. As I explore my ‘car’ phenomenologically, I realise it evokes feelings of comfort, convenience, freedom, enjoyment for me. Culturally, it also represents something about relative wealth, social status, mobility. It's an object and a personal-cultural symbol.
If I had never seen or heard of 'car' before, or any such vehicle, and encountered one out of context, I could only guess what it is, what it is designed for. I would have no idea how to operate it, what its capabilities are, what significance it carries in my actual cultural environment. In other words, the whole idea of 'car', what it means, is culturally constructed.
‘Is red’. This attributes properties to the car, as if ‘redness’ is inherent to the car, an actual colour of the car. It’s about the car, it’s not about me. It’s a metaphysical view, how I believe things are in the world. To be more accurate, I could say, I experience the car as ‘red’, where ‘red’ is the colour I experience in the brain when I see the car in white light. Is the car still red when it’s dark?
But ‘red’ is a social construct too. We use red to denote a colour, a label that distinguishes one colour, or a group of similar colours that fall broadly into ‘red’ within my culture, from other colours. I don’t simply see and categorise colours at a personal level, I live within a culture that distinguishes between and organises colour categories in very specific ways.
I inherit the language I use, language that creates its own ways of framing and categorising. I also inherit my own cultural environment and history. My thinking and experience is profoundly influenced by these inheritances. At the same time, I have my own unique experience of the world. How I act in the world shapes language and culture too, it’s a mutually-influencing process.
So, ‘my car is red’. Simple to say, profoundly revealing when unpacked. It says something about me, how I perceive and experience the world and myself in the world, and also something about the beliefs, constructs, values and practices of my wider cultural environment. Revealing such assumptions, opening ourselves to re-examination, can be a radical route to transformation.
‘Does the word kite mean anything to you?’ I almost dropped the phone. I had been researching power kites for the past month, wondering about giving it a try as a new hobby. There is something about the feeling of flying, floating over the ground, that holds a deep resonance for me. I had given up the search a few days beforehand because I couldn’t find a kite at the right price.
The text came out of the blue from a friend who lives 100 miles away. He knew nothing of what I had been thinking about. He couldn’t understand it either. He had been walking through a supermarket when, randomly, I came to mind along with the word ‘kite’. It made such a powerful and unexpected impression on him that he took the unusual step of texting it to me.
I went to visit that friend this weekend and told him what I had been doing over the past month. He looked amazed. ‘Weird’. As we talked about it, musing on what it could mean, what God’s message might be behind the message, he played a new CD on he had just bought in the same supermarket. Words rang out, ‘I felt his hand today, across my shoulder, I kneeled down to pray.’
It felt like God was reaching out, saying something towards me in that moment. I remembered John’s gospel in the New Testament, how God does strange things, miracles, as ‘signs’ that point towards something that lie beyond themselves, towards the Someone that lies beyond our current horizons. Was more than an odd coincidence, was this God, and if so what was he saying?
Later that evening, I contacted another friend who had first inspired me with the power kite idea. I told him about the strange text message and how I used to have a recurring dream of flying. It felt so free. As I did so, I became aware of how I had said used to. This friend reflected back. ‘Sounds like God may be calling you to enter his freedom in the present tense..?’
Those words inspired me, created a shift in my awareness, ignited a desire to know God afresh. I went to visit a power kite club the next morning to learn more, to try it out, to see what creative insight might emerge in the act of doing it. There was no kiting, however, because there was no wind. Could this be a message from God...he wants me to fly, but by the power of his Spirit?
I don’t know. I don't know what it means, but I do want to be open to my assumptions about God, about reality, about my own life being tested. I want to be open to hear Him in the quiet, the normal, the strange and the unexpected. I want to be open to step out in the faith He calls me to. Perhaps that’s the real meaning behind the ‘kite’, a call to a leap of faith, a call to learn to fly.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.