A Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures

Do you hate words? Many do who think they don't. They regard a word as a poor substitute for a picture, a gesture, a mathematical formula. Words are approximate, but measurements are exact. Words indicate things, but pictures actually show things. Words have vague meanings, multiple meanings, tricky meanings. Words have to be spelled the right way, defined the right way, placed in a sentence the right way. Words are thought to be not worth all the trouble.

If words were mainly a means of communication, then the haters would have a point. But that is not the case. Words are something much more profound than that. They are mental containers. What they contain is your ability to think, which determines your ability to cope with life.

Suppose you need a rubber band. You pull open the kitchen drawer, and find a chaotic jumble of objects. You paw through the jumble looking for a rubber band, and wishing that the objects were arranged in some order, so you could reach in and instantly find what you want.

For many people, all of reality is like that kitchen drawer. Thought consists of rummaging around in the mind looking for some conclusion that will make sense out of what is happening. The result is a platitude, an attitude, or a slogan. Any idea of forming an original conclusion is a distant dream; it's hard enough just finding a slogan.

When words don't do you much good, it's natural to think little of them. First you have to get smart, and then you can learn a lot of words and what to do with them. But what if words could make you smart? What if you have it backwards? What if learning words and what to do with them is a method for getting smart?

If you decide to sort out all that junk in the kitchen drawer, you choose some classifications, and put everything into piles according to the classifications. You make a pile of rubber bands, a pile of soap, a pile of kitchen tools, a pile of measuring aids, and so on. To sort things out in your mind, you do the same, except you have to find a way to make mental piles. That's what words are for.

What do you mean when you say, "people"? You mean a concept, which is a mental pile. What does it contain? It contains the humans you encounter now, plus all the humans you have encountered in the past, plus all the humans you might encounter in the future. The word "people" lets you treat this unlimited number of things as one thing. You handle it as a unit.

If a word can contain an unlimited number of things, and your mind can contain an unlimited number of words, then mental power has no limits. Everything in existence can be sorted out and put in order. Not only can you arrange everything in various useful ways, you can compare one arrangement with another, and use words for the relationships you observe. The ability to convey those arrangements to others is icing on the cake; being able to sort things out is what gives you the power to cope.

Words can do all of that, and pictures can do none of it. So the title of this essay is wrong. A single word is not worth a thousand pictures. It is worth lots more than that.

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