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 waiting is vulnerable.

There’s a vulnerability in waiting — waiting to find out if you got into school, waiting for a woman you are curious about to contact you back, waiting for a friend to reach out to you after a break in communication.

Waiting for answers, waiting for clarity, waiting for inspiration. Waiting to see if the work you’ve invested in for months will finally pay off. Watching others in your life get the job, get into the school, enter a new relationship, maybe get married. Meanwhile, life seems to be standing still for you, or worse, life is handing you rejections — you don’t get the job, you get told by someone you are interested in that they don’t see the two of you being together. Life gets you so down, you miss all the deadlines for the schools you were planning to apply to.

It becomes difficult to hope and keep putting yourself out there. You begin to wonder, is it worth it to keep putting myself out there? Can I take a break? Or is this “break” just me being lazy? 

It’s been hard for me not to wrap my worth up in how many times I’ve been rejected. It is hard not knowing if all of these rejection have to do with me, or something else. Am I not good enough for the job? What was I missing? Am I not good enough for the relationship? What did their dreams have that I didn’t? Life is hard enough being queer and black, but knowing that I have some disadvantages for me systemically doesn’t ease the words of self-doubt, the words that say “yes, it is all you. You didn’t get what you want because the problem is YOU.”

On top of all of this, constant rejection means I often feel like I don’t have the right to be picky. I live with guilt when opportunities that I know aren’t right for me come my way — someone expressing interest in friendship, but “being tired of white people” being the reason they claim they reached out to me. Or someone informing me of a job opportunity, easy to apply to, a skill I’ve wanted to learn, but difficult hours, more that I may have the spoons to commit to.

Taking a day at a time while in a season of rejection and waiting feels like using life as a distraction on the worst days. On the best days, it’s reconnecting with loved ones you haven’t seen in a while and reconnecting with old hobbies. Momentary respite from the waiting. The next day, you will encounter the endless flatlands of waiting once again upon that moment you wake up after resting from yesterday’s full day of distraction.

There’s a lot of loneliness, a lot of wondering if people will still believe in you if you are not accomplishing or announcing the next big thing. Most days, I feel internal and external pressure to find a silver lining, a reason for this season of life that will make it all worth it in the end. Sometimes I can find it. Most days, I just want someone to see that it’s really hard for me right now. I don’t want to feel like I “have to” find the silver lining to make others comfortable.

In our culture, especially with the likes of vulnerability researcher Brene Brown in the mainstream, we talk about vulnerability as if it is an easily renewable resource, something that you can just muster up whenever you are able to will it. As if we don’t need life to give back to us sometimes, especially after so much rejection. As if rejection doesn’t truly wound us. I could use a win, but not what other’s consider a win. I could use more kindness my direction, not in the way that other’s think I need, but in a way that I need, in a way that I understand. Or dare I say, in a way that I want.

It is hard to want right now.

That is, to want without want feeling like a lead towards even more heartbreak and crushed dreams.

If I seem guarded, if you see my arms crossed and you see my shoulders draped over my chest, know that I am trying to protect what little spark is left that is hiding in my heart, waiting to be known, received, delighted in and protected. This spark is precious. Who knows when she will feel like she can expand again, with no inhibitions. Nothing in life is entitled to that precious spark.

What Beauty Means Now.

leaves 1

In my 25 years of living and in the year 2018 I have found that

now, in our world, beauty means

hiding from people that your family didn’t love you well

hiding that your family growing up isn’t kind, a safe place and put together

hiding that things in your family have still not gotten much better

and hiding that this pain has shaped a part of your brain and body.

Now, in our world, beauty means

not being dark

of mind,

of story,

or skin,

not being sad

or moody

not struggling with confidence

or having to be reassured.

In our world beauty means

not telling the truth of how everything is hurting

and not telling how you feel about those who perpetuate the hurt.

It means to be silent about your pain

your anger,

and your questions.

Beauty means you must always be smiling

You must never show fear

never show doubt

never need

and cry

and ask

and hope for help.

In our world, beauty is confidence

and not having to consider that the world gives you this thing called “confidence”.

(What is confidence, now, in this world, except being affirmed by the powers that be?

In our world, beauty means

that those who are ugly,

those who are dark,

and bent,

and gnarled,

must find their significance elsewhere

in another world

in order to survive.

My hope:  in order to survive the world

where being ugly

and being dark

is not desired

or welcomed

or necessary,

we must find our desire for another place

where being ugly is magnificent,

is nothing to fear.

Isaiah 53:1-3

Who has believed our message
    and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Inspired by queer, disabled, transnational and transracial adoptee, Mia Mingus.