Wednesday, May 6, 2009

State of Grace

In a previous post I mentioned I am a lover of language and words. Some scientists say that the use of language separates us from other animals, but I don't believe that. In my opinion, other (maybe most) animals on this planet use language. I certainly think that whales and porpoises have and use language. The great apes - gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans - most likely have some sort of vocal communication. And my work with rabbits over the past decade has convinced me beyond any reasonable doubt that they have a common language which they use to talk to each other. It's far too subtle for humans to discern, but I believe it's there. Even very young rabbits are born with an understanding of the lapine language.

Maybe what does delineate us from other animals is the extent to which humans use language. Over thousands of years humans have created hundreds, if not thousands of individual languages and dialects. More importantly, humans have devised a way of codifying and writing their language down, which means knowledge can be preserved and transferred to other humans. Animals may have dialects but to our (admittedly meager) knowledge they do not write things down.

Humans have taken language as a means to express information about concrete objects and extended it to include abstract concepts. Abstractions are very important ideas that don't necessarily have a physical manifestation. Emotions, such as sorrow, joy and anger, are abstract concepts without a physical component, even though you can often "tell" if someone is angry or sorrowful from the way they look and act . But these are merely outward signs, not the emotion themselves. Other abstract concepts such as courage and honesty are even more ephemeral - it's sometimes impossible to tell from their outward appearance if someone is courageous or honest. But they exist and are very important. It's interesting to me how some of the smallest words can carry immense abstract meaning, which brings me to the subject of this post.

"Grace" is one of these words. Five letters, one small word, but what an interesting concept. Everyone has heard of grace. Athletes and dancers can be described as "graceful." We talk about being in someone's "good graces." A Catholic prayer starts out, "Hail Mary, full of grace." We've heard about "grace" all our lives but what does it truly mean? If a dictionary entry did not exist for "grace" and you were called upon to write it, what would you write? It is such a highly abstract concept that everyone knows what it is, but it is very difficult indeed to describe it in concrete terms, much like "hope," an even smaller word but equally abstract. We all know what "hope" means, but how can we describe it concretely?

I did look up "grace" in the online dictionary and there were eight different entries for its meaning, including the short prayer said before meals and a temporary reprieve or exemption, such as a grace period for paying a bill. Only one entry came close to the abstract meaning I'm thinking about, "the quality or state of being considerate or thoughtful," which for me doesn't quite come close to describing grace. For me, "grace" is a state of being, but it covers so much more. It is a state of contentment, satisfaction and happiness, of being magnanimous in spirit, of being generous and joyful and accepting and embracing everything in life. It is a place you find yourself when you are fully appreciative of the life you have, being surrounded by people and things that you love, and understanding how fortunate you are. I think all animals naturally exist in a state of grace. Humans also have a legacy of graceful living, but too many years of "civilization" have taken it away from us. That's why we need to strive and purposefully try to get back to this natural "state of grace" into which we are born.

The Quaker song "Simple Gifts" has a line which for me comes close to describing this state of grace:
"...When you find yourself
In the place just right,
You'll be in the valley
Of love and delight!"

And that's where I want to be.

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