when words fail

The first time I read New York Times columnist Michiko Kakutani was two days following the September 11 attacks, in a course on writing for mass media. In what I would later recognize as her inimitable style, her opening sentence hooked me as a young undergraduate:

“Language failed this week.”

(Incidentally, that column is not behind the NYT paywall, as is unusual for the archives. By all means, go ahead and enjoy. It’s an outstanding piece that holds up remarkably well a decade later.)

To be sure, it did fail. Americans by and large had no words to accurately describe what happened, so we resorted to nauseating hyperbole and exaggeration. It wasn’t even measured, it all came off as cartoonish and/or self-important. (And this coming from a writer who regularly employs hyperbole and exaggeration!)

So today, when I got into a social network conversation on God as being or ground and it touched on the limitations of language, I was reminded of that Kakutani column, which is forever seared in my brain. It also is elicited when conversation with a friend veers toward whatever is happening with the inner person. Given that it is a delicate thing, it is perfectly understandable that giving voice to our emotions or mindset is a task that daunts even the most sociable, outgoing, brash or bold of us. Rare is the person who, on the receiving end of such an exchange, can accurately interpret and understand the failings of language. Perhaps those very few are the ones who should accompany us for the balance of our lives.

The true friend can be spoken with in confidence. The truest friend needn’t hear a word.

It occurs to me that, even with such a cursory glance at language’s shortcomings, it tends toward the efficient and the typical. The polarities of existence, agony and ecstasy, sorrow and triumph, love and hate, are where we do not tend to verbalize well. When things just aren’t going well–or, conversely, are going too well–words fail to do justice. The birth of a child, the engagement, the loss of a spouse, the home devastated by a natural disaster. War and genocide and the horrors of both therein. What can one say in those times that doesn’t come off as hackneyed or potentially insulting?

It further occurs to me that, when words fail, we need to understand that words and speech are an approximating acts to begin with; words will never deliver perfect justice (a sobering and deeply troubling thought to a rhetorician such as yours truly) and, as such, we can do no better than simply working with what we have. If we can’t say it right, we can at least say something. Anything is everything.

What is produced may not be poetry, but it’s honest. And honesty, last I checked, still counts for something.

Let’s face it, it would be disconcerting and downright creepy if we had the right words for the brightest and darkest of life settings. Language and communication have a demythologizing quality to them: to have accurate terms for those times would be to claim dominion over them. No one has that ability, which makes the words of Christ that much more mind-blowing–Peace, be still. Let alone the barrage of poetic imagery in that passage–particularly the storm and sea–dominating a squall with such stark words, er, defies description. As does the image of the crucified Jesus crying out, Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?!

To understate in those times is not only expected, but gives the moment its due. Sometimes it’s better to just shut up and celebrate. Or agonize. (Are you paying attention, Jim Nantz? Joe Buck? Both of you are culpable in botching these kinds of moments. As are most television broadcasters. Kakutani’s point exactly.)

For the one who is on the other side, the one who craves words of consolation or satisfaction in those times, the same remains true–sometimes what is unsaid is better than what is said. The eyes express better than words ever could. It is the fellowship in those settings that matters more, those who are present, necessarily including the God who so often remains silent. Perhaps in this, God demonstrates God’s transcendent wisdom. And we betray just how insecure and frail we are in the midst of such episodes.

Which, in turn, tells just how insecure and frail we are. And how much we rely on words to keep us.

What are you saying? What do you want to say? What do you need to say?

Similarly, What do you need to hear? What do you want to hear? What are you hearing?

The deafening silence can be a best friend or a nemesis. Yet, eventually, the right words will come. Rhetoric will fail, but only for so long. After while, with healing or contemplation, language will become our ally once more.


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