Our Words Fail Us, and We Fail Each Other

“War is what happens when language fails.”

— Margaret Atwood

We all fight with someone, even the people we love the most. We fought all the time, nearly daily for some, but it’s rare we reach for physical violence to get our point across. It is common to reach for emotional savagery at the slightest threat to our self-image, our way of thinking, or our sense of control. Real or perceived we are quick to hate, to degrade, and to cut off people around us for the smallest transgression because we have lost the ability to really tell one another how we feel, and to really listen to the feelings of another.

We’ve all utilized violence at some point on siblings or schoolmates. Some have hit their children or had to fight a stranger. Worse are those who have struck a spouse, a parent, an animal. I’ve seen it all and done my fair share too. I have been hurt and hurt others. I have had my sense of safety taken away, and I have felt pride in taking it from others. But I hate that version of me that was so stupid and so weak as to think there was any reason to feel pride in such brutality. I hope to never act so brutish again unless I have to use force to save my life or the life of someone I know.

I’ve come to see violence as something to only be used as a last resort and only when violence is first used on me. I now believe that there is no end to the ways a conflict can be resolved as long as both parties want to. Growth has made me sensitive to the ways I see communication break down around me and the way people have come to see physical violence as the second step after verbal violence is utilized as the first.

Violence is an instinct. Little kids do it and have to be taught not to do it. It is also a learned behavior too. The more they see other people doing it, the more we do it, of course, but I’ve seen babies not yet walking and not yet witness to assault hitting and throwing things out of frustration when they feel their needs have not adequately been communicated.

I work with children in a space that isn’t home and isn’t school, and in this place, they are a little freer, a little more themselves, for good and for ill. I find that at any slight correction, challenge, or frustration they fail to communicate their feelings and instead head right for violence, first verbal and then physical.

I have to slow them down. I work hard to teach them that there are other things to try first. I tell them they can talk to me, tell me how they feel, and I will never punish them for that. I do it because I understand they are being raised the same way I was, to believe that any show of emotion or expression of need is a sign of disrespect. Their feelings are being forced in, and their ability to communicate is decaying from non-use.

As a result, they have no idea how to simply say they are unhappy, that they don’t understand, that they are frustrated or hurt, or to ask for space or time to process what is happening around or inside themselves. They don’t know how to say what they need, and they have no desire to hear what other people need either.

They only know what they have been taught— that respect and understanding come after you have forced it from someone. They have been taught that there is only one right and one wrong and that the one who is right is the one who hits harder.

As we get older, we gain some control, or at least we learn who we can’t hit and who we can. We still don’t know how to talk, and we still don’t know how to understand though.

That’s not to say we are all violent people. No one wants to start there. No one wants to yell, humiliate, or hurt, we do it when we feel we have no other choice and that place is different for us all but none of us have the strength or patience we might have if we’d worked at communication or seen proper examples of it. All of us has given up on someone, some of us have given up on whole groups of people we will never meet because we are convinced that they are incapable of understanding us and us, them.

But there is always a point, and there is always a way, it’s just hard to do, that’s all. Language is a poor way to describe all the complexity and shades of meaning and feeling that exist inside of a human being, but as long as we are each trapped inside of our own perspective and consciousness, barred from the minds of one another, we have to use what we have, our words.

To listen is exhausting. It takes a lot of energy, emotional and intellectual, to hold your own mind back, to trust enough to let your defense down and listen to another. It’s even harder to be vulnerable and ask someone to expend such energy on you. We try once, twice, and the third time we’re done not seeing that the first time we sounded frustrated, the second time we yelled, and the third we used insults and threats. There was never real communication. I see this every day.

No one learns how to communicate rigorously.

No one learns to consider that they are wrong.

No one believes there is honor or pride in giving time and consideration to needs, ideas, or ways of living of others.

The effect is worse in groups and worst of all in nations. Too often violence can seem like the only course of action to take, not last but at all. We work ourselves into a frenzy declaring that our way of life our thinking or land must be defended at all costs. We are right, and they are wrong, and words will do nothing. There is nothing to say to “those people,” they wouldn’t understand if we tried and we will not allow ourselves to be infected, manipulated, deterred, or distracted from our aim. EQUALITY, FREEDOM, JUSTICE, PEACE! Worthy causes to die for, but to kill for?

Maybe. I won’t say I believe that there is no place for violence. Sure, there are wars worth fighting. There are people who can only be saved if someone else was to die, but I don’t see those kinds of wars being fought. What I see when I watch the news is wars being fought that might be solved with listening and an exchange of ideas and empathy, and I see wars not being fought where genocide, mass rape, and the exploitation of children has been taking place for generations.

What I see is nations acting like people, fighting for respect and control and not for equality, freedom, justice, and peace.

What I see is here at home a divide furthering between ideologies because talking is exhausting and listening is just too hard. I see people who are sure they are right, that there is no other way to see it, and that communication is no road to resolution. I see tension building and a canyon-sized divide between the purity of each sides way of seeing the world. No one is willing to build a bridge. The bridge builders of the past are disillusioned, and the would-be builders can only see what the other side won’t do.

So, violence is quickly becoming all that is left because we’ve not built the strength nor the desire to keep trying, again, and again, and again.

We’ve not been raised to believe that people can come around by words alone. We’ve not been raised to believe there is a middle ground in that canyon separating us from one another. We’ve not been raised to understand that people are mysterious and complex and in need of love and understanding the same as us. We have not been raised to see each other as equals only as beings to dominate, manipulate, and use for our own emotional ends. We’ve not been taught that words will get us what we need.

The average person isn’t out there beating people up and humiliating them, but we are internalizing and perpetuating the same way of looking at the world and thinking about one another that leads to violence on more massive scales. We are protecting and excusing the violence that breaks out on individual levels seeing it through our own upbringing and justifying the pettiest reasons.

I just want to see us all try another way and try a little harder.

Try being patient. Try being quiet. Try being open, sympathetic, and kind.

Work the muscles in the mind that express and understand. Learn how to use your words and learn the meaning of words that other people use. Consider that you might be a little wrong and that the people you have written off might be a little right. Not just the people you know, but people half a world away too. Think about what war is and what it’s cost is worth. Teach your kids to do the same and teach your loved ones through their interaction with you. Take the time communicate. I promise it is no waste.

I’m talking to all of you, myself included. I am talking to all sides of the issue those who have never listened and those who have tried listening so much they’ve given up hope that it works. I’m talking to you.

I’m talking to us here and now and to everyone in the future because if we don’t learn to sharpen and strengthen language, make it better and make it work nothing will change.

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Thanks for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for inspiring reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Featured photo is by Georgia National Guard from United States [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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You Will Be Misunderstood

Hello and happy Monday dear readers. I hope your day started off on the right foot, mine has been bumpy since I woke up. I was running late, I forgot half of what I needed for the day, and I have more to do than I have time to accomplish. It’s going to be rough but I’ll do my best to stay positive, or at least remember that if sometimes, just making it to the end of the day is an accomplishment worth celebrating.

This week I am thinking about how much time we all waste being frustrated with each other over misunderstandings. I think most conflicts are misunderstandings and most could be resolved if people realized that it is necessary to explain yourself sometimes and people should not just know what you meant or what you want.

I have a friend who thinks that if you don’t understand what they are saying it is because you are not listening. This can be incredibly frustrating when you are in fact doing the best you can because you really do care and you just miss her meaning. My friend just doesn’t understand that language and meaning are not black and white and that she must try a little harder to get her meaning across.

It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood.

// Karl Popper

Language a slippery thing and humans, the inventors of it, are notoriously horrible at using it. Couple that with all the subtleties of tone, emphasis, and body language, plus whatever is going on the head of the person you are talking to, and you can see how being understood at all is a miracle.

I have noticed people have very little patience for being misunderstood. We want to say as little as possible and we don’t like to repeat ourselves. We lash out at another person for taking our words the wrong way and ever even consider that half the fault might lie with us. You may have to elaborate, you may have to explain, you may have to try more than a few times, but stay calm and don’t give up.

It takes two people to give words meaning, the one saying and the one hearing. Think of any interaction as two (or more) people working as a team to give words meaning. You cannot do it all on your own and you cannot make it all about you.

Don’t get defensive, don’t get frustrated, that only makes things worse. If you yell or give up the people around you will too. If you are misunderstood, if your words are taken the wrong way, if a mistake is made because someone thought you wanted one thing and you asked for another, just stop, start over, and take the time to try again. It won’t cost you much and, in the end, your relationships remain intact and you feel better for it.

No one is an island and you cannot pretend for long that connecting with others is not important. Just make sure you are doing your part before blaming someone else for misinterpreting your words.

Featured image via eflon

The Importance of Sonder

The profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passed in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it.

Do people, feeling, and lives exist when I cannot see them? Is anything important that is not important to me? Do people love, and hurt, and hope, and cry as much as I do? Do they think stupid thoughts and hear a voice that is theirs but isn’t theirs inside their heads? Telling them when to feel embarrassed or pathetic? Do others really day dream and wish for lives they can never live?

I people watch and I wonder what they feel when they go to bed at night. I wonder what they think about in the shower or what they wish for when they blow out their birthday candles. Part of me wants to know if what I do, and think, and feel is normal. Part of me has this crazy idea that no one else think or feels like I do. It’s seems too crazy an idea that there are whole stories and lives, just as complex as mine, going on all around me.

The amount of emotion and thought happening all at once, all over this world, is more than I can fathom.

Object permanence is the concept that a being can understand that objects exist even when they cannot be seen. But what if an object has never been seen? What if a feeling has never been felt? How can I ever know other people are as real as me if I have never felt what it is like to be other people?

Another part of this is my natural ego-centrism. I can never get out of my own viewpoint so it’s difficult for me to imagine any other way. I am the center of my story, the only story there is, as far as I am concerned. But every so often something clicks in my mind, the world shifts, and I clearly see, for just a moment, that everyone has the same story too.

There is no official English word to describe this feeling. Considering how strong and important a feeling it is I am surprised there isn’t. There is a new word though, “sonder”,  coined by John Koeing for his “Dictionary of Obscure Words, but it has not yet entered the greater public’s lexicon. I think it should though. If you’ve felt it you know it is a powerful thing, an overwhelming emotion, and can, for just a moment, change your view of the whole human race.

When it clicks, when sonder hits, it really is like being connected to every other person you can see. You can see that all around you epic and complex stories are being lived, only you are not a part of them. You will never even know them. You are nothing but an extra, a character in the background never to be seen or heard from again.

If it’s particularly strong, you feel it for the whole planet and your heart swells up in your chest and you suffocate with under it. You are overwhelmed by the the sheer amount of humaness walking around on this Earth.

If you’ve never felt it I urge you to go to a park, or a mall, or some other populated place and think about the fact that every person you pass feels, thinks, and dreams the same as you. The are complicated in all the ways you are and they are just as misunderstood. They have families and they fall in and out of love. They are hurting, they feel lost and scared, they try to be brave, just like you. They are nothing but extras in your story too and they will never be privy to the epic tale you are living either.

Think about that for a short time and you will feel it mixed in with a little love and a little sadness for each passerby, for all the hope and suffering they will endure.

Just like you.

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Featured image: The Nitty Gritty Rather Pretty…. by Devin Smith