I was reading A River Sutra by Git Mehta for AP English Literature. On our oral final, my teacher asked me what “journey” I liked most within the books I had read. I answered the one of the narrator in A River Sutra, who hears all these stories of human love, desire, and suffering, having gotten through life without ever really experiencing those things–interacting with events like his wife’s death or a successful government career that should have evoked those feelings yet not feeling them anyway. I said that I liked the idea of not exactly living life to the fullest, but at least still experiencing the full range of human emotions. That was about the exact wording I used.
And afterward, I hated myself for giving such a hackneyed, sentimental answer. I considered myself very intellectual, more than I probably really am, and above all that simple, obvious stuff. I prided myself in my unique thought and interpretation. But now that I’ve thought about it, my intellectualizing has made me miss out on the emotion that makes these boring answers continue to have profound impacts, despite not being profound themselves. It’s not about the content so much as how it is interpreted by the listener and/or speaker. With intellectual content, we are generally on the same page, but with simple, less complex content, we fill in the meaning for ourselves when we speak and hear it. There isn’t a need to be explicitly nuanced or unique because the experience of processing emotions and memories attached to the words you utter is enough for you to feel as though your statement is meaningful. The listener goes through a similar experience of processing emotions and memories, but because your shallow statement is an easy slate to project onto, it’s easy for them to fill in their own meaning and see it as insightful and deep.
Defining anything lessens its reach and depth. Something in its true, full essence is lost when you force it into a box, no matter how large it is. By refusing to define it, you create an infinitely flexible space for the interpreters of the phrase to hold its meaning, a meaning that may not even exist until you begin the act of approaching it. It is only after you’ve reexamined it later, away from the added fresh interaction accompanying it, after the emotion has subsided, that you begin to realize the emptiness of the words themselves. But that doesn’t matter, because then you can write an unbearably long-winded and convoluted explanation of your recent experience and feel smart about weaving in meta stuff at the end.