What is it? And what is "is?"
Last week on XL we explored how purpose is baked into everything in existence. Most notably we find purpose itching within ourselves — driving us from within to grow, become, achieve, connect, find meaning, and repair & elevate the world around us.
This week is a tad more abstract.
Actually, it’s nearly the most abstract topic one could contemplate: existence itself.
If abstract/philosophical is generally not your thing, please don’t worry — I’ve got you. There is a valuable, tangible payoff at the end of this XL, and (aside from next week), these will be getting more and more tangible.
After all, our goal at XL is not pontificating about high-flying ideas, but giving emotionally and viscerally palpable expression to the deepest dimensions of life in ways that guide and enrich our day-to-day living.
Isn’t it interesting that the longer a word is, the more concrete, and easily defined the idea it points to?
Take for example one of the longest words in the English language:
/ a-cril-uh-nite-tril-boo-ta-deen-stih-reen /
an opaque engineering thermoplastic widely used in electronic housings, auto parts, consumer products, pipe fittings, lego toys and many more.
Pretty straightforward. Apparently, it’s some sort of plastic.
Ok, so this isn’t so interesting. I agree. But when we look at the other side of the linguistic spectrum, we’ll see why this idea is actually pretty cool.
“Is” is the most basic, most fundamental thing one can say about anything, as in: “it is.”
Defining “is,” however, isn’t basic at all.
/ iz /
3rd person singular present indicative of be.
Telling us that “is” is a form of “be” isn’t very helpful. Let’s keep following the trail and see where it leads us.
/ bē /
Hmm. So is = be = exist.
Nothing very exciting has happened on our little tour of the dictionary so far…
Until we ask ourselves a question we probably haven’t asked since elementary school:
why is “is” is a verb?
Most teachers aren’t equipped to answer this snarky question, and probably wave it off with a “because that’s just the way it is” (while failing to appreciate the irony of their answer).
Since we’re a long time out of elementary school, and for most of us, the trauma of learning grammar has for the most part dissipated, we are now liberated to ask the question again:
Why is “is” a verb???
Verbs do things (e.g. walk, eat, talk) — what does “is” do?!
Well, in English, not much.
“Is” simply states that something is.
Limply. Lamely. Statically.
Contrasting the subtle meanings of words with their equivalents in foreign languages helps sharpen the meaning of those concepts. In Biblical Hebrew, for example, there is no “is.” There is only “was” (היה) and “will be” (יהיה), but they have no equivalent in the present tense.
Why do you suppose this might be?
The answer is because the present moment is not static like an inanimate rock. It is as alive and dynamic as fire. The instant you point at a fire, it is no longer the same fire it was the instant ago, when you thought to point at it.Similarly, as soon as we speak of the “now,” the moment has passed and we’re referring to the past.
Hence there is no static “is” of which to speak.
In addition, if you look closely at the way היה/יהיה are used in sentences, you’ll see that it is incorrect to translate them as “is” and “be” because they are used in a much more dynamic, creative way than “is” and “be” are used in English.
Just to take a well-known example. God says, “יהי אור,” which is normally translated as “Let there be light.” However, this is imprecise.
More accurate is “Be (יהי) light (אור).”
More accurate still is “Become (יהי) light (אור).”
In English, something has to “come into being,” as if “being” is this gigantic, static clump of stuff, and things can be “brought in” from somewhere to join it.
In Biblical Hebrew, however, the word “יהי” refers to the very becoming itself.
Life is never static.
We are never static.
We are always becoming.
Being is always becoming.
One ancient trick to experience the energetic activity of the present is to slow down the energetic activity that obscures the present — the buzzing in our heads and bodies.
This activity is, of course, one of the best known forms of meditation and mindfulness practiced today around the globe in our frenzied, modern world. In our stillness, we can begin to hear the majestic movement of the very fabric of reality in which we exist.
Our recognition and embrace of this constant flux of becoming:
loosens us up to keep learning and growing,
prevents us from getting trapped in our rigid egos (the frozen personas we project),
permits us to be more generous by seeing our possessions as a flow of blessing to be shared, and not a static pile of wealth we sit on,
reduces the anxiety we feel of “having to be X already,” and
allows us to reimagine and build an even better world.
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If you’re wondering what could be more abstract than this, stay tuned for the next XL!
Technically “is” and all forms of “is,” such as “be” “are” “were” “was” etc. are linking verbs, which strictly speaking are action-less verbs, and an “exception to the rule,” but I think this is a copout.
Intuitively, “is” is more than an adjective tell us something about a thing. It seems to be saying something more essential about that the thing itself — but what??
For those of you thinking it’s הווה, this is imprecise. הווה doesn’t mean “is” — it means “the present” as in “the present moment.”
Interestingly, fire according to physics isn’t a thing per se. Rather, it is the frenetic activity of the rapid motion and oxidation of air molecules made visible. It is less a noun, and more a visible verb.
It seems that the etymological origins of the word “exist” also reflected this deeper perception of reality as emerging from non-reality, but the highly consequential nuance was lost with time, and the devolution of our metaphysical worldview in this respect.
It should surprisingly not surprise us that the letters י, ה, ו, ה form the ineffable Name of the all-encompassing Reality in which we exist within, in so far as as He actively reveals Himself to us.