Struggling with semantics

Words have meanings. (Deep, I know). Those meanings convey thoughts and ideas. Thoughts and ideas can stick in our brains well beyond the utterance of the words themselves. The connection from word to meaning to idea is so deeply embedded in our brains that we can dwell on something we read, or something someone said, for literally years. This incredible connection is why I can write “juicy lizard farts” you’ll be irritated with me for the rest of the day.

To go the opposite direction, as you have thoughts and emotions percolating in your mind, you’ll likely be feeling an unknown anxiety until you can translate those amorphous blobs into words that most closely convey the meaning of what your you’re feeling. And if I didn’t edit my writing to use the correct word (you’re instead of your) you would get likely get the meaning of my sentence, but because of the incorrect word, your (not you’re) brain would likely do a bit of a hiccup as it searched to fit the right word into the context of that sentence.

In college, I was having a conversation with a professor about one of his research projects. I don’t recall what triggered his comment, but he said something that I’ve been dwelling on for literally decades (paraphrasing): “Don’t let someone tell you that an argument is just about semantics. Everything we say is about semantics. If we cannot agree on the semantics, then we haven’t agreed.”

I struggled with semantics mightily when I was an atheist going to church, and that, ultimately, was why I left. The people were nice, the teachings were wholesome, and the music was beautiful. But I couldn’t get the word “God” to mean anything other than how I understand most people to mean and understand “God”.

“But can’t you just redefine the word in your own mind, and substitute something like ‘universe’ instead?” I tried that. And that works so long as we don’t have any kind of extended conversation that involves the word in question where my meaning and your meaning significantly differ. You need only say “God is doing wonderful things in the world today” for me to struggle with my meaning of God, and this causes a bit of uncomfortable “cognitive dissonance”. (I put cognitive dissonance in quotes because I’m not quite sure that’s the correct phrase. Its the feeling that you get when you’re having a conversation with someone and they use a word or phrase that isn’t perfectly familiar to you and you have to struggle for several moments to figure it out based on context, and that time spent figuring it out is time you can’t focus on the rest of what they’re saying, and its even worse if you just couldn’t quite grok their meaning.)

So this is why I’m still struggling with the idea of going to Alcoholics Anonymous. From what I’ve seen so far, having been to maybe a half a dozen meetings, the people are nice and very supportive. They celebrate every milestone, no matter how small. They volunteer to help and support anyone who asks. They are a great community.

And yet I’ll have to deal with my feeling of “cognitive dissonance” as I struggle with the semantic differences I have with the crowd before me. The first, and most obvious, is the word alcoholic. Pretty much every one of my posts on this topic has been about this struggle. The second is the reference to god/higher power in six of the 12 steps. When I went to a meeting this week, I introduced myself as “Rick, and I struggle with addiction” rather than the much more common “Rick, and I’m an alcoholic”. And when they read the 12 steps aloud, I read my own 12 principles. And then there is the serenity prayer, and its appeal to God for wisdom.

After the meeting, I met a fellow atheist among the regulars. He acknowledged that my struggle is a common one, and gave me some tips for working through it. His higher power were things like “global trade” or “UPS” because “those are way more powerful than I am”. And he told me he used to substitute “Sid” for God because of the letter D at the end. He summarized by saying that he finally acknowledged that all of those struggles were just his attempts to refuse to admit that he really was an alcoholic.  When he had introduced himself to the crowd, he was “Paul, the grateful alcoholic” (not his real name).

In my current emotional/spiritual state, his suggestions felt a bit trite. We had chatted for only a couple of minutes, so its not like I was expecting to be handed some great atheist-brotherhood wisdom. But it did kinda paint the picture that to get the most from the organization, I would have to resolve this internal struggle somehow, because it is clear the organization isn’t going to change for me.