Several days ago, my wife and I were having a “disagreement” on the subject of Christmas trees. I won’t bore you with the details, except to say that after several minutes of bickering, we came to realize that the source of our enmity lay in our differing understandings of what the phrase “Christmas tree” actually meant.
By this I do not mean that we were fighting about the dictionary definition of “Christmas tree” i.e. a tree of the evergreen variety, traditionally decorated and kept in the house or public places around December 25th.
No, our problem did not lie with the surface meaning of the phrase “Christmas tree,” but rather with its deeper associations.
You see, when my wife thinks of “Christmas tree,” she remembers those special days of childhood and youth when her family would drive out into the woods, cut down a 15 foot Noble fir, bring it home and decorate it to the accompaniment of Christmas carols, hot apple cider and cookies.
By contrast, I am not greatly inspired by Christmas trees. I grew up on the Equator, where evergreens are non-existent. We never even had a real tree, let alone go out to cut one down. Our trees were decorated, but decorating them was just a practical task that someone accomplished at some point before Christmas.
For my beloved Jaime, “Christmas tree” is the embodiment of family, comfort, and joy. When I hear the same words, I think of a necessary object to be acquired and decorated by whatever means is most convenient.
No wonder, then, that my wife and I fought over the importance of Christmas trees. Although we were using the same words, we were actually speaking two different languages. Superficially identical, my wife’s “Christmas tree” and my “Christmas tree” referred to two profoundly different and opposed realities.
If you think about it, this petty domestic squabble points to a core problem in much of human life. How many national, political or social conflicts have erupted when groups use identical words—like “freedom,” “democracy” and “human rights”—in contradictory ways, all the while insisting that their definition is correct?
How often have we traded common words like “family,” “friendship,” or “love,” only to be hurt when others don’t seem to understand us?
As a pastor, I am only too aware of just how loaded are words like “father,” “righteousness,” “God,” “obedience” and “authority” in the lives of those to whom I minister. And as an Eastern Orthodox priest, I am often bemused at western Christian arguments over “faith” versus “works” and “Scripture” versus “tradition”—words that are superficially familiar to me, but whose definitions I do not share.
Whether in the realm of the national, the personal or the spiritual, the problem is the same: translation. People use words and as long as these words appear to mean the same things, they assume that they are communicating.
It just isn’t so.
Like my marital disagreement over Christmas trees, the problem lies in the deeper meanings. If people say, “We are fighting for freedom!” do they mean, “We are fighting so that your people can have the freedom to choose between Nike and Reebok,” or “We are fighting so that our right believing people can be free to worship Allah in a proper manner”?
If someone says, “I love you,” are they referring to a warm and intense emotion that can flicker and fade away in time, or a lifetime commitment to give themselves to another person, regardless of emotions?
If someone says, “We are saved by faith,” are they referring to a crucial moment in which we recognize certain propositions about God and His love in Jesus Christ, or a series of faithful choices, each of which brings us closer or pushes us further away from God? Or is it something in between?
You can see how so many conflicts come to be. Most of us don’t really ask ourselves what someone else means by the words they use. We just see common vocabulary and plough ahead, assuming that our definition is the one the other person is using, or worse yet, that our definition is right and theirs is wrong.
The answer to this pervasive failing in our human character lies in proper translation. By this I don’t mean better or more accurate dictionaries. I mean taking the time to understand what each person really means by the words they use.
As a husband, recognizing my wife’s associations with the phrase “Christmas tree” went a long way to healing the rift between us. As a pastor, recognizing the emotional and spiritual baggage that many people bring to the Church has been crucial to helping them find a true reconciliation with God.
Seeking and discovering these inner meanings takes time. It involves humility, openness and commitment. It is often painful and frustrating. It requires us to gain trust, which is reluctantly given and easily betrayed.
As difficult as this process is, however, it must be undertaken. We must make the effort to fully translate the meanings of each others' words, spiritually, personally, culturally. If we don’t, we may be doomed to continue talking at without understanding each other, much less achieving anything like unity or agreement.