how we use words, and how words relate to empathy, curiosity, conflict and responsibility

My curiosity is one of my greatest gifts.

But my curiosity has also been the subject of ridicule by those who are afraid of its power.

My curiosity allows me to see below the surface of a matter. I have always been interested in knowing more and looking deeper.

Words absolutely matter to me. I have no shame in that. Explaining, exposing, revealing, creating understanding, communicating vision… these are things that words can do. And these are the things that we love about artists: they help us see things in new ways. They reveal hidden things to us that are difficult to articulate. The deep care that writers, musicians, poets, artists give to words… that is what we love about artists.

I notice that in conversation, my ask of “what do you mean?”can stack rather high in comparison to some of my peers. I don’t ask the question in judgement, but in curiosity. I do wish to know what it is that the person I am speaking with means.

“What do you mean?” I say. I am gauging how different and how same we are.

I always appreciate it when “what do you mean?” is asked back to me. I feel like the difference between our experience is recognized. I worry about being in a relationship for months and years without ever having someone ask me “what do you mean when you say that?” “how are you using that word?” “what does that sentence mean to you?” “why did you say that?”

Words are not just niceties and embellishments. Explaining is not always a weakness. It can be a sign of respect for difference of experience. (I realize however, that I learned to “over-explain” myself to people who did not share any curiosity about our difference, who only wanted to impose sameness. I do not find over-explaining to be empowering. I take it as a sign then that curiosity is not reciprocated in the relationship in the way that I had hoped. But, I digress.) Using words that no one understands without explaining them is pretentious.

Spoken language shape how we make sense of our lives in relationship to each other. We are social. The spoken matters us much as the unspoken languages and ways we send messages to each other, such as our body language.

When we speak, we often do so in order to be understood. Sometimes, the meanings of the words we use are agreed upon. On other occasions, we may have different meanings for the same words, or different. It is why we argue about words like “intersectional”, why we fight for the contexts, histories and stories to be recovered. It is why we have so many songs and books and art about “love”. It is why you can have the same author write vastly different love stories. Some words are more complex than others. Words like “love” are not self-evident. How we individually understand “love” is shaped by what we personally experience and the histories that shape that personal experience.

I think that at the root of some of our interpersonal conflict is the assumption that we enter the relationships we find ourselves in with the same meaning for the words we use. What do we mean when you say that you want a “break”? A person can have the word “break” introduced into the relationship. Their understanding of the word, the meaning attached to it, can induce a sense of panic and doom. Or, the word can bring a sense of relief and peace. (And then of course… a “break” from WHAT?) Why would one word, the same word provoke different reactions? Because they mean different things to different people. We bring our contexts into the words we use. Whether these relationships are with co-workers, friends, lovers… we often come with the assumption that we always see eye to eye when we use particular words.

As children, we come to learn what words mean by watching the connections between the actions of the people around us with the words that they use. My context informs what I think about when I hear the word “mother” or “love”. “Mother” might bring me feelings of sadness, while “mother” may bring feelings of warmth to someone else. I have had to create new and life-giving meanings for words that felt painful and confusing.

We must seek to understand and stay curious. It is not always easy to be curious, but it can help us love ourselves and others better. Curiosity can be vulnerable. We have to have empathy when we speak and words are not immediately understood. We need the humility to remember that we do not always know, but we can continue to be curious. We cannot simply dismiss those who desire to understand by saying that words matter more to someone else than others. It matters to all of us, whether we are conscious of it or not. We all have stakes involved in matters that involve words, language, speaking. Some of us are simply more aware of the stakes, and the possibility of misunderstanding, even in the use of similar words.

Let’s be curious about what others mean, how they are using words, what they are envisioning, imagining… what they could possibility be re-living. Let us find the humility to hear the other; to find the difference when we are prone to assume the same, and to find the similarities when it is harder for us to imagine that someone else could share anything with us.

Lost, but not Hopeless.

For me
Hope is found in the tearful and tender confession of “I don’t know”.
I don’t know how to be a friend,
how to make the world
not end.
I don’t know how to stay above sadness
Or how to make love.
But I believe that
hope is found in bowing to our deepest “yes”,
whether silent in resolve,
a shy admission,
or thrown about joyously like confetti.

Hope is not an assumption
Hope is not pretense
Or proud
Hope begins with not knowing where you are going
Where there might be no maps.
Or the memories are lost, maybe harder to recover
Maybe deciding it is worth it to go
And to make the first step anyway.

A few more thoughts on love.

For someone who has endured chaotic, unreliable and unpredictable relationships, I ought to be disillusioned. These patterns have made me difficult and skeptical, but I have always longed to be loved in the ways that I need beneath all of the difficulty.

For years, I didn’t realize that I had the power to walk away from the cycles of unpredictability, chaos, melodrama I found myself caught in. I thought that I had to stay in relationships where I was being mistreated and misunderstood. I thought that this was my lot, that there was something wrong with me. I thought I had to be exceptional to be loved. I lacked the humility to realize that I don’t have the power to make people love me.

When I realized that “making people love me” didn’t work, I stepped up and tried to be assertive. When I loved myself enough to stand up for myself, I watched people who claimed to love me leave. Both manipulation and unconditional love… both make people leave, I concluded. So, I doubted all of the years that I worked on learning how to actually love. I let their leaving make me doubt my competence, my tenacity and my existence, until I realized that real love makes those leave who have yet to understand what difficult things love requires of us. Like self-control, self-accountability, self-compassion, emotional sobriety, courage and kindness, among other things. (Love does not demand perfection or exceptionality.)

As a Christian, you get told that “God loves because it is God’s nature”. What Christians are saying is that love is part of who God is and chooses to be. I’m not sure if I ever internalized this in a practical, embodied way earlier in life. (Sure, God is love, cool, got it). I didn’t really think about how that translates to personal relationships. A human being loves because it is part of who they are. They are filled with love, so they love. It is their choice, not something that I can control. It is not something that goes away or stays because of how good or bad I am. Love remains.

I have been relieved to realize that I can discover the tools and power in myself to walk away, and find people who want to love me because they choose to. When love is given freely and not dependent on myself, I feel more secure; I feel like I can love freely, without fear that I am being “used” or “robbed”. Love freely given is empowering.


 

There are people who I think about as “the loves of my life”. When I think about those people, I realize that what I experience a calm and peacefulness when we aren’t together. I don’t feel anxious and afraid. I realized that they have earned my trust and my mind and body are in agreement. My gut is not screaming. My mind is not tricking me. I am calm.

The loves of my life… I think about people who feel like my heart, my true self, outside of my body. The human qualities that are dismissed as “too good to be true”, like honesty, consistency, kindness, patience… and all those fruits of the holy spirit. And when I am loved by these people, I feel like anything is possible. I feel less silly and less ashamed for the kind of person that I want to be in the world. My heart is no longer dismissed and it brightens, expands. I am not just “naive” when I am with them. When I am with them, I know that love is something real that we must practice over and over again. Love is practice, a skill, as Esther Perel would say. I’ve learned that the “feeling” of love isn’t one — it can be joy and inner stillness, relief. Or when it is lost, grief.

When I think of how proud I am of myself, it is because I think about how I am growing to be like the people who have loved me well. I am learning their skill by being loved and by watching them be brave.

Being chosen to be in the lives of these people — no matter how long or short — is such a gift, such a honor. A dream come true. And it brings me a peace beyond what I knew was possible. The love they create, this commitment to create and practice, is evidence of those things unseen.