In two recent situations, I felt acutely aware that words by themselves do not suffice. I had many of them at hand, but they just sat there in my mind, stacked up like bricks, walling me off from my feelings. Usually, I experience a blankness or a short circuiting of thought when I feel blocked, but this was not my own forgetfulness, emptiness, or malfunctioning. I had lots of excuses for my walls of lousy words, but for once I didn’t feel they were lousy because of my own shortcomings.
The first situation arose when someone thoughtfully asked me for recommendations on how to respond to a rape victim’s disclosure. I appreciated the question, but all of the responses that occurred to me felt inept, deficient, or wrong. The sentences I wrote in reply made sense and ostensibly said what I wanted to say. At the same time, the very act of crafting sentences felt superficial, and being superficial felt disrespectful. How do you express layered feelings of sympathy, concern, impotency, and sadness to people who are in pain?
I think I struggled to respond to the question about words for rape victims, in part, because I know that victims and their experiences vary widely, and I didn’t want to suggest specific reactions that might not be appropriate for everyone. Even so, I could envision the tone and quality of some words and even some of the accompanying body language that might reassure. At the same time, the actual words that came to mind seemed glib and too little, almost artificial.
The second situation arose when I got a message from someone who has had a debilitating, chronic disease his whole life and was recently diagnosed with another major and probably terminal illness. This person had seen my blog and had written to me to say that he was enjoying reading some of my posts. I was simultaneously flattered and horrified, worrying that he was wasting his precious time on my blog. I also had this strong feeling that, if the world made any sense at all, his body would be healthy and mine would be the thoroughly diseased one. I sometimes wish that my heart would stop, while, I assume, he spends a lot of time wishing that his won’t.
Regardless of that irony, I was glad that he had contacted me, and I wanted to reply promptly. Again, though, I was stumped. I could write about how genuinely sorry I was. I even thought about the understandable and sincere ways that people often talk about courage, strength, and perseverance under these kinds of circumstances. But all of that felt trite and too easy. In my mind, the limitations of words felt like betrayals, and everything that I knew to say risked belittling his experience.
This is going to sound crazy, but as I thought more about the irrationality, immediacy, and intensity of feelings, I remembered something my younger son used to do when he was learning to speak. At the time, this son seemed to have an unusual need for me to always look the same. Back then, I guess I rarely wore my hair in ponytails, so when I did, this distressed him tremendously. He would cry and reach his arms up in the air, stiffly stretching out his fingers before retracting them into fists, and say, “No hair, Mommy! No hair!” He didn’t know any other words to demonstrate the intensity of his frustration or his deep desire to make it better, and yet I knew what he meant right away. With the unselfconscious use of three baby-words and one gesture, he conveyed his strong and desperate feelings, and what he truly felt was unmistakable.
Artists often speak of wanting to approach a painting like a child, without reservations or preconceived notions. I have never heard of writers who wish they could write (or really speak) like babies. Still, I wonder if unsophisticated words and small gestures might work better than poetic language when we are speaking directly to people who are living with sorrowful, grave, and unfair experiences. There is something aptly sincere, pointed, and powerful in baby-talk that gets lost when we start to think about the proper expression and delivery of our feelings. I believe wholeheartedly in the value of exquisite sonnets, paintings, symphonies, photographs, and the like. These forms have an astounding ability to connect us to complex emotions on a number of levels. At the same time, all of those forms carry with them a level of abstraction and artifice that removes us—if only ever so slightly—from the potent reality they try to represent.
Adults are not going to start speaking like infants anytime soon, and I’m not suggesting they should. Still, it would be something if we could express our raw and unadulterated emotions like my son did and other babies do. Their body language and economy of words often have the power to communicate very specific emotions instantly and more effectively than anything else I have experienced.
I did my best to reply to these two people who deserved heartfelt responses. If either of them feels that I failed them, though, I don’t think they would be wrong. If I were to translate the feelings I wanted to convey into a combination of the most basic words and a single gesture, I would reach out my open hand and say, “I wish…”