Words have always been magic for me. From the time I learned to read (well before my first conscious memory), they have held the key to my understanding of the world around me and of my own inner experiences. The realms of enchantment and wonder spoken of through fairy tales, myths, poetry, and works of the fantastic imagination were as real to me as the things I could see and touch, or even more so.
While I sensed a kindred magic in nature, its language was comparatively veiled and obscure. It was through stories, through words, that I could most directly awaken to the true reality, for which all that appears to our senses is only a metaphor. I felt tremendous faith in the power that I experienced through this medium of language.
As I grew up, I came to realize that each and every human being encompasses a world as strange and fantastic as any I could encounter in a book, as rich and complex as any of the wonders of nature. And words are not always able to bridge the gap between us, to open the gate to that hidden country. When communication breaks down, when language cannot convey what I mean or even becomes hurtful and counterproductive, the pain is immeasurable. Is there another tongue to be learned, a language of the heart?
Working with people who are to some degree non-verbal, the so-called developmentally disabled, has helped me to begin to grasp this other way of speaking and listening. I’ve had to become more awake, more flexible, more attentive to the individual before me and less lazily reliant on habits and assumptions.
Sometimes “I” actually means “you” and vice versa; sometimes there are code words that mean something completely different to the other person than they do to me. I’ve had to figure out how to make my intention and inner focus the strongest aspect of any attempt at communication, rather than relying on spoken syllables to get my meaning across. And I’ve had to try to intuit the inner world of the person before me with very little help from anything resembling ordinary syntax.
When there are no words at all, behavior has to be read like a language of its own. Screaming, flinching, bed-wetting, sluggishness and hyperactivity, outburst and withdrawal all have meaning, all represent cries for help or comfort or security. I’ve had to pay heed to cues like skin color, changes in breathing, sleep patterns. Nothing is insignificant; each phenomenon is like a letter in a great script that must be lived through in order to be comprehended.
I’m by no means an expert at any of this, in fact the merest bumbling amateur. But at least I’ve gained the experience that our ordinary language often forms a kind of smokescreen of unconscious verbiage that deflects us from the underlying reality. Even when we’re trying to be more aware of what we say — or maybe particularly then — the limitations of words quickly become apparent, if they’re not supported by other kinds of awareness.
Much as I still love and reverence language, I now know that there is another way to understand and meet one another. Without being rooted in this wordless foundation of pure meaning, words themselves become dead, empty husks. They can only be redeemed and brought back to life when we find our way to the source, creating each utterance anew out of our own living perception of the tension between self and other, and of its potential resolution into a higher harmony.
Words are the writing on the wall that divides us. Whether they will harden into stony barriers, or become transparent windows showing a way through, depends on how we use them.
Have you also been challenged to go beyond words? What other ways of speaking and understanding do you experience?