The Word is Not Enough: The Way We Push the Boundaries of Language

“Thank you is not enough. But there are no words.”
Christie Watson

We seem to be existing in a space beyond words. Beyond language. The fear, the anxiety, the gratitude, the anger.

The word is not enough.

What happens when words fail us? What takes their place? How does this affect communication, moreover communion?

In many ways, language has always been a boundary against which we push—a “boundary of the unsayable,” American novelist Marilynne Robinson calls it.1

Against it pushes Joan Didion when she tries to express grief at the death of her daughter. Against it pushes physicist Alan Lightman when he stretches himself in the universe seeking place and meaning; and Edward Lear as he hollowed out nonsense verse that made sense of the nonsensical.

Hieroglyphics at Luxor, Egypt. Featured in "The Word is Not Enough" in the Examined Life.
Hieroglyphics at the Luxor Temple, Egypt. Hieroglyphs, from the Greek “sacred carvings,” utilized pictorial form to narrate and define. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

And whoever thinks these are worthy, breathy words I am writing down is kind. Writing is neither vibrant life nor docile artifact but a text that would put all its money on the hope of suggestion. […] Sunflowers themselves are far more wonderful than any words about them.

From Mary Oliver’s Upstream

I wish I could transport Mary Oliver, a poet who wakes early to hear the unspoken words of nature, to the space adjacent to Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh painted sunflowers, his favorite flower, again and again. A man who spoke so many languages, had so many words on his lips, felt he needed to paint to express.

We act when we cannot say.

Hieroglyphics at Karnak, Egypt. Featured in "The Word is Not Enough" in the Examined Life.
Hieroglyphics at Karnak, Egypt. “But sometimes in a man or a woman awareness takes place – not very often and always inexplainable.” wrote John Steinbeck. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Windows in London are full of rainbows. This country has agreed rainbows express what we cannot say to all the frontline workers who are saving our lives. A big arc of color, a small thank-you.

We make rainbows. We act. But how do the health care workers self-express? Do they make rainbows for each other?

English nurse Christie Watson admits in her memoir that the language of kindness is something practiced, day after day. It is something shown, not spoken. For how do you thank someone for returning your life? Returning the life of someone you love?

Watson shares a note she once received:

To the bereavement midwife. You helped me through the worst time of our life. We will treasure the memories you let us make during Annabelle’s short time. Thank you is not enough. But there are no words.

From Christie Watson’s The Language of Kindness

But we cannot always act. What if we have negative feelings, emotions? What if we hate and fear to the fringes of our body such that we pulse? Then should we act?

Anger is an outsized emotion, “the deepest form of compassion,” concludes poet David Whyte. “The internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect.”

When the word is not enough, violence becomes the act of expression. “Words!” they might as well be yelling, “we need more words!”

Hieroglyphics at Luxor, Egypt. Featured in "The Word is Not Enough" in the Examined Life.
Hieroglyphics at Luxor, Egypt. Steinbeck continues “There are no words for it because there is no one ever to tell. This is a secret not kept a secret, but locked in wordlessness.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Will the words we use ever catch up to our need for expression?

“The human experience,” argues German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, a keen observer of our human connection, “is not describable.”

In his 1976 work To Have or To Be?, the German social psychologist separates the human experience into “having” and “being.” In the having mode, everything is a thing, describable. But in the (more preferred) being mode, the word is not enough.

One could write pages of description of the Mona Lisa’s smile, and still the pictured smile would not have been caught in words—but not because her smile is so ‘mysterious.’ Everybody’s smile is mysterious (unless it is the learned synthetic smile of the marketplace). No one can fully describe the expression of interest, enthusiasm, biophilia, or of hate or narcissism that one might see in the eyes of another person, or the variety of facial expressions, of gaits, of postures, of intentions that exists among people.

From Erich Fromm’s To Have or To Be

The shortage of language, argues Fromm, stands between one person and another, stands between our communion.

None of these experiences can be fully expressed in words. The words are vessels that are filled with experience that overflows the vessels. The words point to an experience, they are not the experience. […] Hence being is indescribable in words and is communicable only be sharing my experience.

From Erich Fromm’s To Have or To Be

Human separateness, our desire to commune and connect with one another—is there anything more profound or urgent? The shallowness of words as vessels can never be overcome, argues Fromm.

But there is a means to understanding one another, what Fromm calls “mutually alive relatedness.”

“It is through this mutually alive relatedness,” promises Fromm “that we overcome the barrier for separateness.”

“Mutually alive relatedness.” I cheer at this term. I cheer the concept of this term.

Hieroglyphics at Luxor, Egypt. Featured in "The Word is Not Enough" in the Examined Life.
“The craft of art or writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for wordlessness.” The power of these carvings, what they express and how they still express today, prove Steinbeck’s point. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.
It is a bit maudlin (even sinister), but it strikes me that humans in this pandemic have something that connects us in “mutually alive relatedness.” Not since the last world war have we ever experienced something so universal, so everywhere.

I might not read your anger or your sadness or joy—but I read your pandemic fatigue fluently. In the lines by your eyes. In the slope of your shoulders, the way you kick your feet forward when you walk like your skin holds you up.

As we rejoice at some shape of beauty that moves away the pall.

Will this mutual experience upset our language and by doing so reinforce our human connection and communion?2

American novelist Marilynne Robinson delights in the abundance of words and how they push the “boundaries of unsayable.”

France drew my attention to the enormous number of English words that describe the behavior of light. Glimmer, glitter, glisten, gleam, glow, glare, shimmer, sparkle, shine, and so on. The old words are not utilitarian. They reflect an aesthetic attention to experience that has made, and allowed us to make, pleasing distinctions among, say, a candle flame, the sun at its zenith, and the refraction of light by a drop of rain.


How were these words coined and retained, and how have they been preserved through generations so that English-speaking people use them with the precision necessary to preserving them. Somehow the language created, so to speak, a prism through which light passes, by means of which its qualities are arrayed.

From Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books

Robinson believes that language evokes a reality beyond experience and beyond imagination—that our scientific forays into quantum mechanics, dark matter, and dark energy demonstrate “the extraordinary power of language to evoke a reality beyond its grasp, to evoke a sense of what cannot be said.”

Whether our reality outstrips our words or vice versa is irrelevant. They are in close pursuit.

Let’s not abandon language. It has been with us since the beginning.

But it is time we challenge language. New words. New things. New utterances. New hybrids. More understood, less misconstrued.

I am tired, sore, contracted, and retreating. Yet, I feel safe. And any minute, I’ll switch to being eager, enthusiastic, and energetic. But that happiness will be bound by fear and insecurity and, underneath it all, murky anger.

I do not have a word for this feeling. Yet.