Darmok in Metaphor
I realized something recently, and honestly I don’t know why it took this long. And right now I am still thinking of how I want to jump into this subject today. I guess the best thing is to just pick something out and see where it takes me.
So, what I am digging into here today connects with an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, specifically season 5 episode 2. This one is simply titled Darmok. From the episode we now have the iconic phrases “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” and “Shaka when the walls fell.” These phrases have layered meaning inside the episode and the meanings have expanded outward into culture at large.
I don’t know about you, but for most of my life I have expressed my thoughts through the music I listen to or the movies I see or even the books I read. And you might wonder how does that work since it doesn’t really cover the way things are. Or something. But really, it all comes back to simple things like song lyrics.
I will always remember the time I was on the rifle range when I first came to my platoon in the Marines. Working the target side, I ended up working with some Porto Ricans. They had learned English through American music channels. We spent a good portion of the time moving targets up and down, singing Roxanne by the police.
The song connected us in a way that we couldn’t quite reach with words alone. There was a bunch of added meaning to all of it. For each of us the hidden meanings were buried in our past.
This was the gist of this particular episode of TNG. In it, Picard and the captain of another ship were beamed down to a planet’s surface. They were placed in a situation where they needed to find a way to communicate with each other, cut off from all other communication. Of course, they find themselves in a life and death situation…
Yeah, our lives are centered on such lynch pins. We don’t have to worry about some big monster coming to kill us if we can’t learn to communicate. But maybe, the stakes are actually higher for us.
One of the classes I took when I was doing some additional college learning was a short story class. You know the kind, we read prescribed short stories and had to go through college level critiques of voice and meaning and all that. One of the stories was written as a view of an older school shooting. Now the thing that stood out was the writer purposely put in a bunch of pop culture references. They were used as metaphor to describe so much of what was going on.
Now if you knew those references, the story came out plain as day. But it was ephemeral. As our generations move past that point of reference, the meanings are lost and it becomes more difficult to fully grasp what was happening. And this is true in so many parts of our life. As generations age and new ones replace the previous we find new touch stones, new language that the older generation isn’t as sure of anymore until the time comes that it is meaningless drivel.
I have to wonder, with how fast language changes now through the connection we all share with the internet, is it possible that we find an even greater disconnect. There are so many pockets in the web where niche dialects are spoken. So many new languages that it can feel impossible to keep up with it all.
We spend our lifetime searching for people that speak our language, people that have shared our world in some way and will grasp the hidden meanings of our words as much as our words themselves. At times we grasp for the small parts of connection and open up more facets of our selves hoping that what we share, isn’t that part that drives others away. It is hoped that in some small space we add just that much more to our language and to the language of those we encounter.
Maybe one day, this too will become little more than words on a page. And those who come after us will wonder what exactly was meant by words that seem static, lifeless. But then, by that time we will have turned to dust and we our words will appear as hieroglyphics to future explorers. The meanings will only be assumed.
If you enjoy these stories, consider leaving some coffee money in the jar or you could buy a book or two. Either way helps keep the stories flowing.