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.

The Sun Comes Anyway

In this cold season, I am learning to be patient
to let go, to not scream to not scream to. not. scream.

I have watched petals drop all summer long,
all of fall
and I have placed so many dried out bouquets down on a frozen ground I find myself still crouching on.
From this place, I gravely look up at a gray sky that feels so vast and so lonely.

Still, I am learning to live comfortably in the endless gray
to make my bed and to put my socks away daily despite the storm inside and out
or what the window nearby tells me to forecast.
Learning the patience to let go
to not scream
or lock myself away from trying
or dreaming of brighter days-
This is me trying.

I am trying to hold on to this:
that love might still flower large with a radiance that I could have never fathomed
but does anyway.
It might come around to greet me,
and it might turn to-warm me
despite what I can now imagine.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Advent is for the Killjoys

I have a tendency towards sadness, which is why I think I like Advent so much.

When I say “a tendency towards sadness”, I mean that not in the sense that I like or enjoy being sad, but rather… it feels honest to be sad in this world and I feel the need to pay attention to that. Christmas matters to me because of the sadness that precedes it.

Advent is the season for killjoys, an expectation for real joy.

I remember when I was doing Mission Year several years ago, feeling so much shame for my sadness. I felt like I was broken. I was suffering with deep depression, lingering feelings of childhood needs unmet, an enduring sense of loneliness that I could not shake off. I remember sensing that I have always felt this way. I have always felt sad– I just did not want to admit it to myself and I did not want others to see it. I wasn’t allowed by my family to talk about it. And, I do not live in a world that lets black girls express grief. And tiredness.

But, during Mission Year, I also remember one of my teammates challenging me when I expressed dismay and shame over my constant sadness, lamenting that I ought to never feel anything. I prayed for numbness. In response, he offered this: “If you never feel anything, if you decide to just be numb forever, you would be asking to not feel joy either. You can’t experience joy without experiencing grief.”

He said this to me, the first time that I ever heard this.

Since that time, I have been able to accept that this tendency towards sadness is okay and real.

Later, I have come to understand that this tendency towards sadness is not my fault. It is a remnant of my history on this earth; a reminder that a longing for justice has been worn into my brain and skin cells through my lived experience, this sense of sadness that doesn’t quite leave.

Advent is the season for killjoys, an expectation for real joy.

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photo credit: rachelvirginiahester

A year prior, in my first year of college, I remember having my depression explained away. Someone in the college ministry told me that maybe there was something wrong about my brain and that I needed anti-depressants and that there was nothing wrong with me. It could just be how my brain worked, she assured me, and that I am okay, and that she cares about me. She knows that we don’t talk often but she hopes that this message doesn’t bother me.

I did not know what to make of this new idea, that some brains are just sadder than others. I could not imagine at the time that maybe, while there could have been truth in that statement, maybe there was more than just this simple explanation. She was not the only one who told me this. I remember always hearing about depression this way from my college-mates that did affirm the use of anti-depressants.

I didn’t want my sadness to be dismissed. So, I became afraid of anti-depressants*, because I had concluded that if my sadness came from nowhere, that sadness was something inherent in me, about the way that I was born. I did not want my sadness to be dismissed — to be decontextualized — because I had been through a lot.

And this world is dark.

I did not want to believe my sadness came from nowhere.

I think about the Christmas story, the one that many Christians will be thinking about for the next month, and I think about the gift of frankincense and myrrh that the wise men gifted Jesus. I remember being told that these two items were given to him intentionally, because these were medicines used to cope with pain. (I don’t know what to do about the gold, so I won’t comment on that). But, I think about the life that Jesus would have, one where he would be spat upon, threatened and mocked by authorities and others in his society, and I know that any sadness Jesus felt during his ministry did not come from nowhere. The kings must have known about what kind of life Jesus would live. One where he would be acquainted with sadness and grief.

As I’ve become more honest with my own experience in the world, I know that I can now attribute this pain to much of what is happening in the world around me, whether it is that which directly affects me or something felt by communities worlds away.

Advent is powerful for me, because I can live into the mystery of this season and the complexity of my emotions as I interface with a hostile society in a precarious global climate. Advent encourages me not to put complex emotions away, because Advent reminds me that it is okay to have hope that is grounded in reality. During Advent, I can resist the compulsion towards happiness without giving into sadness. It is a season where I feel more comfortable not shaming myself for refusing to feign contentment in a dark world.

Advent is the season for killjoys, an expectation for real joy. A time that I think about The One Well Acquainted with Grief, the One that Befriended me. The One who Hopes for Joy After Grief.

Advent begins this Sunday.

*For clarity, this is not to be taken as a statement about anti-depressants. Rather, this was what I was told to believe about them at the time. If you are considering anti-depressants, please talk to a professional who can be sensitive to your needs.