We’ve all experienced that moment. You’re standing in the checkout line of the grocery store with your cart full of items, or maybe you’re at your local coffee shop, when suddenly you hear a young child throwing a tantrum. They scream, cry, and drag their little bodies on the floor in total protest. But as children age, the frequency and severity of these public meltdowns begin to diminish. Something very interesting happens in the development of the child's brain. Instead of using tears and shrieks to call attention to a problem, eventually children begin to use words. Where there was once a deep and inexpressible pang, suddenly there’s a whole set of tools to alleviate this tension. Which means, the idea of possessing a “vocabulary” is about more than words; vocabulary can be any means of expressing yourself. Vocabulary expands not only what you think, but how you think.
There's a reason we tell young children, who often don’t possess the necessary vocabulary to understand a complicated or mature situation, that they’ll have a better understanding when they’re older. This of course often frustrates the child to no end, whose curiosity craves immediate answers to questions. It’s not that the child fails to see the situation; rather, children who lack experience also lack vocabulary, and are thus incapable of processing their experiences with the same moral and societal context the way adults do.
As a writer, I take and find great pleasure in seeking out unique and engaging ways to communicate complicated thoughts or emotions using only words. On this page, I can’t use color to set the tone, music to set a mood, or images to accentuate my imagination; all I have are words. But like that screaming child in the grocery store or the coffee shop, I still experience moments of frustration where I can't articulate what I’m feeling. As an adult however, the biggest difference is that instead of throwing a tantrum, I can go seek out and find the vocabulary for what I’m experiencing, so that I might make sense of what’s actually happening.
One of the greatest parts about growing older is that you begin to accumulate wisdom. This is a unique and privileged vantage point that can really only be gained through experience. To this day, societies all over the world still look to elders as authoritative figures and more capable leaders. My guess is that it’s not their age that's important, but their depth of vocabulary and their ability to see, understand, and articulate what’s happening in context so that it makes sense to the rest of us.
The next time you find yourself at a loss of words or tools to express a frustration or confusion, consider this idea of seeking out the appropriate vocabulary. More often than not, you’ll find that the solutions to your problems already exist in plain sight, yet it is us who lack the ability to recognize and call upon these answers by name. Part of the responsibility for garnering better answers to our questions is actually learning to ask better, more relevant questions.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “You never step into the same river twice.” Another way of thinking about that, is that you’re always changing, growing, aging, and accumulating new ways to think about the world, your surroundings, and how to communicate back to it. With each new word, comes new understanding. With each new mistake and frustration, is the opportunity to learn from it. And with every new concept, comes the possibility to see in greater context. Your vocabulary then, is far more important than just the words you know or use; your vocabulary is the lens with which you see the world.