When Words Fail (Me)

Writers have a blind spot. We depend too much on words.

Memory: I am standing with my back to the front door. I am standing between the person I am in love with, and the way out. The person I am in love with wants out. I am convinced that, if I can just find the right words, I can persuade the person I am in love with to stay. “Just give me five more minutes,” I plead. Every five minutes. The person I am in love with stands silently, waiting for me to move.

I never came up with the right words.

I’m in the grips of a familiar-feeling dis-ease, lately. Words are chasing themselves through my head from the moment I achieve consciousness, in the morning, until much too late at night. Words are forming and dissolving phrases, structuring and re-structuring sentences, translating and rejecting and re-translating emotional content into letters and spaces.

Today I am back up against that door, pleading for just a little more time. Believing that, with the right words, I can persuade away the fear, the isolation, the anger and the brokenness that have fed, are still feeding, are now feeding to bursting the worser angels of the spirit of this country, driving the daily escalation of horrific headlines. I am begging the words to find their shape quickly, before everything that matters to me is gone.

A difference, this time, is that I am surrounded by the right words. Every day I listen to and read friends and colleagues and leaders and heroes whose words are shaped exquisitely. The sneaky, undeniable ice-pick of truth. The cradle of compassion. The shining mirror that blazens hypocrisy. The torch, held aloft, that illuminates our shared values, our helpless connectedness.

All around me, language is doing battle, valiantly. Beautifully crafted, nuance-responsive, staggeringly thoughtful words are flying through the air.

And crashing into, and falling blunted at the base of, shields made of jingoism, crafted by bots and trolls and spin-doctors and entertainers who mistakenly think they’re journalists, and the people who believe them.

Here’s my elitism. Here’s my blind spot, writ large: I can’t believe such unskillful language is defeating all these beautiful words. I can’t believe that the dull lead of transparent opportunism and cynical fear mongering is stronger, in the end, than the diamond drills of facts, and reason, and appeals to our shared humanity.

I don’t know how to live in a world in which words are so weak. In which words don’t matter, can’t matter, because they are not backed by anything. An agreement about objectivity – an agreement that objectivity exists – is the gold standard of language. When everything is subjective, when everything is simply another “opinion”, words seem powerless.

I am in despair.

“Are you not a witch?” whispers a voice in my head. Oh. Right. Do what a witch does. Dig deep. Look beneath. Face shadow. Find power.

“Words are the tool,” I hear my own voice now. “The tool is not the source. Find source. What is the power the words channel? What is the power the words shape?”

And the answer comes, the way it almost always does when I honestly ask, when I get quiet enough. The answer comes right now, as I’m writing this, because that’s another way writers can depend too much on words – we often end up writing out our thoughts in order to think.

Story is source. You’ve been confused. You’ve believed, and said, and written, that words are the most potent human magic. That words shape our reality because they shape our thoughts and thus our actions. You’ve been a writer in love with your tools, but Story lives in more than words.

The stories we tell about ourselves, about others, about the world, about what is possible and what isn’t… those stories don’t just shape our language. They pour out through our hands, our feet, our eyes, our hearts. The words you speak say something about the story you’re living in, yes. But so do your actions. So do the places your eyes light and linger, and the regard with which they hold what they see.  The things you touch, and the way you touch them. The way you move through space and across the ground. The things you choose to give your heart to, to risk its being broken for.

When a tool feels blunted, put it down. Hand it off to someone for whom it still is honed. There is a team doing this work. Let the story you want to tell – about connection, about fearlessness, about spaciousness and plenty and kindness as currency and care for all beings and sustainable stewardship rather than ownership – let that story live in how you speak, not just in what you say. Let it live in how you spend your time and where you place your attention. Let that story be the energy that infuses everything about how you move through the world. When words hurt, be silent awhile. You can be a tool of the new story even when you are not, in this moment, its teller.

Memory: The silence after that door finally closed, when I was alone and wordless, having failed to impose my vision upon reality – that silence was not as empty as I’d thought it would be. I was still there. And there was space for possibility. None of which was much comfort but, unquestionably, and without something I thought was necessary for my being, there I still was. Still alive. Still present. Still able to act.

In my world, this is how magic works. It’s not neat and it’s not often pretty. It’s the skillful use of What Is. The ability to discern the nature of my tools, including the tool that is me, and to work with their nature to effect change. I have some new ideas now. About putting down the tools that are not serving, no matter how comfortable they are. About authenticity at a soul-deep, silence-fed, spilling-out level.

What feels most authentic to me, in this time, is the need for the Story of What Can Be to grow, and swell, become stronger than the Story of What is Happening Now. My challenge – as is so often the case – seems to be to take my ego out of it. What does that Story look like, when I stop thinking of myself as its author, and instead know myself to be its tool?

I have let words do my work for me. I have neglected what I know about wholeness. What I know about the cycles of fullness and fallow. Writers have a blind spot. We can forget that we are not just writers. We can forget that we are witches as well.

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5 thoughts on “When Words Fail (Me)

  1. jeanne b adwani November 28, 2018

    Witnessing you in this sharing … this Story of stories. I SOoooo get it. Wheeewww.
    Holding that place of paradox. Holding.
    with love

  2. Aranya November 28, 2018

    What a powerful message. Thank you for sharing your “words” — they DID NOT FAIL ……..

  3. Mary Gelfand November 28, 2018

    Well, I do love words and all the fun things you can do with them. But, I have long felt that words can be weak and limiting. Once I find a word to use when speaking of something–primarily emotional and spiritual topics–I have closed off other ways of ‘defining’ or expressing that feeling. We are a linguistically poor nation when it comes to words to describe deep feelings of any kind–and our most sacred words, like LOVE, have been entirely debased by their overuse in commercialism. So I don’t believe that words and logic will save us. I’m not sure what will save us, but I think it involves peaceful shared silences, opening hearts, music & theatre, and listening to each other’s stories without judgment. Thanks for sharing this. You might enjoy the Netflix comedy special by Hannah Gadsby–very potent and addresses the role of story in the world today.

  4. Steve Blomerth November 28, 2018

    Most of the time we communicate with others in words, but our gut-level emotions lack the fine shades of meaning we have learned in the magic and poetry of word play. When our emotions have gone beyond our rational control, when we have fallen into pain and darkness, we will feel the emptiness of that chasm between what we can understand and express and what rages inside and confuses us. Only kindness can bridge that gap.Only kindness can fall like Shakespere’s ‘gentle rain from Heaven’, because it needs no words, only the shared experience of being a mortal. Reaching across that gap where no words can go is what makes us human.

  5. Paulita December 16, 2018



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