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Philosophy

Eve Ensler on the Importance of Naming Things

From 1951 to 1955, renowned journalist Edward R. Murrow hosted a 5-minute radio program that gathered Americans around the table. Titled “This I Believe,” the mission was simple yet beautifully profound: to have remarkable luminaries like Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson, and Helen Keller share their life’s one guiding principle in just a few hundred words.

The show was revived by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman on NPR in 2005 as a weekly segment with a clear distinction from the 1950s program: an invitation to everyday Americans to share their personal credos. Nurses, cab drivers, secretaries, scientists, and people from all walks of life moved the country to tears and invigorated them with inspiration.

Eighty essays, both contemporary and from the past, were compiled into a compendium of wisdom titled This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women.

One of the most impactful essays for me comes from Eve Ensler on the lifeblood of language and the power of naming things. Her harrowing story of early childhood abuse and the courage to properly name and define it is what ultimately helped her regain the power that was once stolen.

Ensler said:

“I believe in the power and mystery of naming things. Language has the capacity to transform our cells, rearrange our learning patterns of behavior, and redirect our thinking. I believe in naming what’s right in front of us because that is often what is most visible.

[…]

When I was finally able as an adult to sit with my mother and name the specific sexual and physical violence my father had perpetrated on me as a child, it was an impossible moment. It was the naming, the saying of what had actually happened in her presence, that lifted up my twenty-year depression. By remaining silent, I had muted my experience, denied it, pushed it down. This had flattened my entire life. I believe it was the moment of naming that allowed both my mother and me to eventually face our deepest demons and deceptions and become free.

[…]

Naming things, breaking through taboos and denial is the most dangerous, terrifying, and crucial work. This has happened in spite of political climates or coercions, in spite of careers being won or lost, in spite of the fear of being criticized, outcast, or disliked. I believe freedom begins with naming things. Humanity is preserved by it.”

eve-lacombe

“Language is not a handmaiden to perception,” said the author Stanley Fish, “it is perception; it gives shape to what would otherwise be inert and dead. The shaping power of language cannot be avoided.” Whether it’s the chest-tightening feeling of being heartbroken to the euphoric high of being loved, we have a primal urge to talk about it. Talking about something gives meaning to it, and without meaning we wither.

In late 2012, I was struck by guttate psoriasis—red scaly bumps that blanketed my entire body, from my scalp, to my face, down to the crevice between my toes. I didn’t leave my room. I avoided the public as if I would be stoned to death. When I absolutely had to go out, I might catch someone’s concerned and confused look, and I would be filled with regret and anxiety.

The timing was, of course, flawless: prior to the psoriasis I was riding a wave of personal growth unlike any other time in my life. I was reading tons of books, exercising daily, and writing relentlessly. It was a year of new habits and a new me. I summarized my life as if it was like getting a new car, driving it off the lot, and getting t-boned. Although I tried to avoid everyone, it proved to be impossible to avoid my best friends. I eventually had to speak up about why I had fallen into such self-sabotage and depression. An honest talk with two of my best friends lead me to finally go to a dermatologist.

The dermatologist knew immediately what kind of psoriasis it was, and she also immediately knew that there was no cure, only alleviation—light therapy, which is a kind of controlled sun tanning in a giant metal tube. But at the end of our meeting, she looked up at me and said, “Honestly, aside from this, I recommend meditation.” I was baffled, almost angry, because people like me didn’t do things like that. She continued to say that the two main causes of this kind of psoriasis were stress or the oncoming of strep throat. She gave me medication for the strep throat and sent me off with what I thought was a hopeless remedy. I remember letting out a kind of frustrated cough, packing my stuff, and heading out the door.

After a few weeks of light therapy, there was barely any sign of improvement, so I gave in to meditation. It started with a few minutes a day and then it turned into multiple times a day. Anytime I looked in the mirror and mentally destroyed myself, I went to my room, sat down, and started breathing. It was actually fascinating how loud my thoughts were, as if I were hearing my own voice for the first time.

Spending so much time in solitude amplified the things I was telling myself, and like a worker on an assembly line, I began pulling out the flawed products of my thinking and removing them immediately from my stream of consciousness. Day after day, the stress was slowly disappearing like morning fog. My attitude became less anxious and hate-filled about my condition and more. . . indifferent. I had accepted what was happening to me, knew what had to be done (lower stress), and accepted this opportunity almost as a testament to my character and newly developed habits.

Had I never spoken aloud my thoughts and feelings with my friends, I would have delayed going to a dermatologist. Had I not named my accusatory thoughts for what they were—harmful and self-sabotaging—the meditation wouldn’t have lead to my recovery from psoriasis.

Calvin-Hobbes-Solitude

Comic by Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes

Ensler mentioned that by remaining silent, she muted her experience, denying and pushing it down, and that’s a trap that we all can fall into. Language—”I feel this,” “This is what I’m experiencing,” “Can you help me?”—is the lifeblood and inaugural process of sorting chaos into order, in untangling the mess string by string. Language is like throwing a stone that awakens a silent lake.

This I Believe is a beautiful read. Both heart-breaking and heart-warming, the personal credos of remarkable men and women—the naming of their beliefs and passions and convictions—is empowering both for the authors and the readers.   It shows the power behind embracing a personal philosophy for life and how it guides action, thinking, and—ultimately—living.

— PAUL JUN
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