The words are not enough

I think a good bit about words and language.  Some of it is the humanities major in me, and some of it is my personality.  As years of dating and living with Dan have taught me, words are my love language.  I receive love through words of affirmation: to show me that you care, I need you to talk to me, not to go to a movie with me or buy me a present or give me a hug.  And so when I find that words fail me, I have an especially hard time.



This year has especially proved to me that words are not always sufficient.  What do you say to your husband when he lost both of his parents in a plane crash?  To a mother of two who is diagnosed again with breast cancer?  To a two-year-old, new to preschool, who does not understand that his caregiver will come back for him at the end of the morning?  Words, my love language, do little to comfort a screaming child or make sense of random, horrific tragedy.  Words do not make the pain logical or rational; words do not make the hurt subside.  


Words are often pitted against presence.  The implication is that words belong to the world of precision and unfeelingness and that presence belongs to the world of wisdom and acceptance and maturity.  During my summer as a hospital chaplain, I frequently spoke with my colleagues about "being with" others.  The predominant model in chaplaincy is one of presence rather than doctrine: it is not the chaplain's job to tell the patient or the patient's loved ones the right answers or to make sense of the situation but simply to offer the gift of listening and being engaged.  No one really wanted or needed us to say much of anything, because, after all, what could we say?


The shortcomings of language perhaps seem exceptionally potent in the aftermath of the holiday season.  The desire to say "I love you" or "thank you" withers away each time muddy shoes tread over your brand-new carpet or another biting political remark halts the dinner conversation.  Whether tension bubbles and festers in the midst of shouting matches or stony silence, we find that we do not have the words to convey our frustration or puzzlement or concern for our loved ones, who somehow are so like and yet so not like us.  Words fail us.


And what place do words have, anyway, in our new picture- and visual-obsessed age?  We have cameras on our phones, pictures to break a mere one hundred words of text in online articles, colorful, stimulating, supposedly brain-enhancing content on our babies' iPads.  We do not know how to spell anymore because we text with abbreviations, acronyms, and emoticons.  We don't write holiday cards anymore but instead upload pictures to Shutterfly or Minted and click the order button.


Pictures and presence sometimes do convey more than words ever could, but I hope that words are not nearing their extinction.  Of course we will always have words, but beautiful words, poetic language, sentences constructed with thought, deliberation, and care...these I am not so sure will have a place in our image-obsessed culture.  


Sure, words' limitations confront us with our own humility and vulnerability.  We cannot play God--we will never have the words or communication skills to make everything okay--but I contend that we must not easily shy away from speaking.  After we acknowledge that our words can never be enough, we retreat not into the comfort of doing nothing but delve into the unease of saying the wrong thing or saying too much or saying something silly.  But at least we take the risk.  Because words may not be enough, but neither are presence or pictures.