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.

Rage Against the Personality Tool: On the Limits of Self-Growth Tools Like Enneagram

Rage against the personality tool.

When I originally wrote that line, they were the title of a poem. A long, messy and cheesy, but frustrated poem.

I want an easy way to explain why
I want to spill my guts
and gather them all at the same time
Maybe, leave each of my friends with
little pieces of my intestines

like a nice souvenir,
so they know the feeling’s real

I’ve used tools such Myer-Briggs, astrology and the Enneagram over the past couple of years to try to understand myself and why I am the way I am: the shyness, the bursts of unforeseen energy, the constant need to self-protect, my impatience with small-talk, and my love of love (both love with a lowercase and uppercase). The first time I was introduced to the Enneagram, I was 20 years old working on a farm. All of my teammates at the farm were raving about it, eagerly learning and discussing their types. The online test that I took described me as a Type Four, but not only was I assigned a Four, the particular test I took described me as an unhealthy Four. I responded by bursting into tears. The label of “unhealthy” slapped me in the face. I didn’t want to be reminded that I wasn’t well, especially after being sent home from a service year program because they couldn’t provide the mental health support that I needed, despite their best attempts.

Fast forward a few years, I visit a friend in Albany and I’m invited to spectate an Enneagram workshop. I’m curious about my type, but during the process of reassessing my type, I spiral into another fit of tears, bawling in my friends car over how tired I feel of being reminded of how I’m not at my best.

For the record, I live with anxiety and depression. And, I have a history of panic attacks and suicidal ideations. I have probably had depression for a lot longer than I remember, since much of my teenage life, but I was in denial over my depression. I told myself that I couldn’t possibility be depressed because I was loved by God and that love was a genuine source of hope for me. I saw myself as a music-loving ball of sunshine, the embodiment of blue skies– I was so in love with Jesus– guidance counselors and high school librarians suggesting I was depressed would have me laugh in their face! But, I know now that depression has been my reality, and anxiety plagues my body. I don’t know how severe, only that it controls my life in a way that I wish it did not. I didn’t know that I had generalized anxiety until being diagnosed with it in recent years.

Since learning about these diagnosis, I’ve been curious about the story behind my mental illnesses. As I’ve stated before, I’ve been told for most of my life that these could just be innate chemical imbalances in my brain — a notion that I have resisted because of the ways I have felt it as a dismissal of my personal history.

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Admittedly, I am also a struggling perfectionist… I think my perfectionism might be a trauma thing. Like my anxiety, my perfectionism gets in the way of me living my life. That is the part that makes it difficult for me to trust self-growth tools like the Enneagram and how it is currently being taught. As a Four, it is suggested that we look at the positive characteristics of Type Ones for self-growth and integration, to help us with the unhealthy qualities of Type Four. But so much of the current trend and culture of the Enneagram describes Ones as “perfectionists” — something that I am trying to heal from. And so much of this culture also describes Fours as being moody and depressive without necessarily looking into WHY that may be.

There’s so many ways that I don’t resonate with the reductionistic interpretations of the Four Type. For instance: “Fours want to be special, different, to be like no one else. They insist upon telling themselves they are the only one who experiences what they experience.”

But what if you have grown up with a sense that there isn’t anyone around you that you can see yourself in? No one who mirrors you back at yourself? What if it is only in recent years that you’ve started to see yourself reflected a little more in media, at national gatherings, in books, etc? I know so many self-identified Fours who live in between social groups, who don’t fit well into gender binaries or racial assumptions or occupy spaces of social marginalization… they don’t see themselves represented well. I don’t know if it is fair to paint with a wide brush that these Fours necessarily revel and delight in being misunderstood. Rather, speaking for myself, I would say it is my normal or my comfortable place.  The land of “Misunderstood” feels more like a shitty ditch I’m used to being in, as opposed to a place I want to make into my home.

I suppose that my logic for having been so invested in growth and personality tools is the hope that if I can understand myself and what I need to grow, perhaps I can find some direction towards healing from the things that may exacerbate my mental illness. With personal tools like the Enneagram, I wonder how much of my suffering is my own doing? How responsible am I for my constant sense of fear — or the mental health struggles that make it difficult for me to feel like I can pursue the life and love that I want to have?

Maybe the way I come to approach these tools are misguided. But, isn’t that why so many of us approach these tools anyway? That they might help us understand ourselves a little more? That we might make sense of the role that we play in the social problems that keep us up at night?

But, I don’t think that incorporating a little bit more structure into my life is gonna be enough. I don’t know.

 

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Our world today is cruel and tiring because of the large and constant presence of violent forces like capitalism and white supremacy. The values of white supremacy and capitalism are constantly imposed on me: homophobia and queer erasure in my daily interactions and on TV screens; rampant anti-blackness in my government, the Church, schools I’ve attended; rape culture in the dating world. A lot of us are lacking resources and access to that which could heal us because of these forces. Even then, our attempts to heal ourselves may get thwarted by the relentless evils that surround those of us marginalized by race, gender, class, ability, you name it. I may heal myself, but then, if the rest of the world isn’t healing with me, I’m at risk of being re-traumatized. My own attempts at self-growth and self-responsibility isn’t enough. My environment is toxic so often. We are trying to make small oases of peace, rest and pleasure despite.

I rage against these personality tools and tests, but maybe I rage more because of the ways they they are taught and presented as life-changing. So many of these tools don’t account for the world we live in, a world filled with normalized systematic and cultural injustices. A personality tool may tell me that I am self-absorbed with no context. But after years of having to deny my own personhood and individuality in my formative years- in the name of representing la raza, in the name of making white supremacy and white people comfortable, in the name of protecting myself from my the violence of my parents– why would I not be a little bit self-concerned or self-absorbed, as the Enneagram suggests Fours are? A personality tool may suggest that what I need to heal from my personal delusions may be a little more structure and distraction in my life, but what if some of the inner demons that I am suffering from — what if they are not personal delusions? What if they come from all of the violence in my environments that I’ve been taught to internalize?

I rage against personality tools, because I am trying to resist internalizing that I am the only thing standing in the way of my growth and healing. It gets hard to resist all the time. Self-growth tools become seductive to me. And, I can’t deny that I need and crave structure in my life. But, I rage against how we hold these tools without a critical analysis because I am tired of feeling like my sensitivities to an unjust world are something that I must manage in order to make others comfortable. What if my sensitivity and darkness is a gift? What if my “self-absorption” is my body and brain begging me to pay attention to what’s going on in my life, in a world where I am taught as a queer black woman and a survivor, to focus on serving and fighting for everyone else?

Enneagram Institute
Please don’t explain away my pain
Like so many other institutions have


A note:

(I anticipate receiving unsolicited advice about how I ought to get a coach. I also anticipate a response to this along the lines of “you don’t understand the enneagram!” Maybe I don’t. But, I have tried to for several years now, and it still stresses me out. However, I’m seeing black women like Mickey Scottbey Jones and Leanette Pokuwaah bring forward POC-centered approaches to the enneagram. And Hannah Paasch, a white queer person, is exploring context and personal history in her enneagram work. This makes me hopeful, but it’s very important for me to share my story of struggle. I am tired of skipping straight to the resolution, to the tidy neat bow).


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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.