There are two fundamentally different ways of picturing the world around us. One is as a collection of objects – and we learn from our earliest moments that we are surrounded by things that we pick up or bump into.
But an alternative approach is to see the world as formed out of processes – actions and experiences. We switch focus from the food we pick up to the process of eating, from the chairs we bump into to the process of exploring the room.
In our modern material Western world, objects are to the fore, and we look to the world to be solid and stable and as unchanging as possible. But for older societies, who live by hunting and gathering, change is an integral part of life. The world is a continuous flux, and the picture of the world is in terms of processes.
So for a situation in which we might say, ‘It is a dripping spring’ – the Apache language would take a word for ‘being white’, a word for ‘moving downwards’ and a word for ‘to’, to get something like ‘whiteness moves downward’.
We can see that this is a fresher and more vivid description, coming from a time when people lived much more in the flux of the natural world than we do.
We, by contrast, turn the abstract processes of our mind into things. We ask if a friend ‘grasps’ an idea, as if it were a bottle of beer that we pass across the table. We say that we have a ‘point of view’ – like a place where we sit to watch the sun go down. We even see someone else’s point of view, just as we see a picture on the wall.
We speak of Time in the same way. It is a highly abstract concept, so abstract that debate has continued for several thousand years as to its nature. But that doesn’t prevent us from ‘saving’ it like money in the bank, or ‘giving’ it to people like sweets from a bag.
A dialogue in Alice in Wonderland warns us to take care with this kind of language.