Words Fail

I have been thinking a lot about the ways language isn’t sufficient — or feels insufficient — when we’re facing the kinds of tragic, horrifying, and deeply troubling events we’ve been facing this past week in the United States.

“Words fail,” we say.

Or, “There are no words.”

We cannot stop there. And I think we know it. Language has its limits, but language is also one of our most powerful tools for connection and for change.

There is good reason to measure our words. Language can hurt in powerful ways. But it can also heal.

This past weekend, I listened to the episode “No Words” on the new (and fantastic) NPR podcast Code Switch. After summarizing what happened in Baton Rouge and Minnesota (and listening to the tape by Diamond Reynolds) and then Dallas, Shereen Marisol Meraji says: “ … and I just feel like there are no words. But, you know, it’s our job to have words. We’re supposed to talk about these things.”

As I listened, I was deeply grateful to her and co-hosts Gene Demby and Kat Chow for not stopping at “there are no words,” and for trying to help us figure out what to say and how to say it. And it felt imperative to recognize that it’s all of our job to push our words to do the hard work — the hard, reparative, and transformative work — they are capable of doing, even if sometimes haltingly and imperfectly.

When we say, “Words fail,” it should be the opening caveat. And the phrase can be helpful that way. It says: I know that I cannot fully capture in words what I am feeling or what I have experienced. And/or it says: I may not say whatever I am about to say as eloquently or compassionately as I would like to — because this topic is painful or fraught or delicate or outside my comfort zone.

Which is all the more reason why we need to keep talking. When the talking gets hard, it’s all the more important not to retreat to silence.

Silence can suggest that we don’t have anything to say or that we don’t agree with someone, rather than that we are unsure of how to say what we want to say or that we worry our words will fall short.

Language allows others to understand our perspectives — to see the world in a way they might not have seen it before. And without all those perspectives, we cannot fully understand what needs to be changed and how to start the process of changing it.

To understand others’ perspectives, though, we must also listen, and listen hard. One of the most important parts of talking — real talking — is listening. And we should never forget the power of words to show that you have listened and you have heard.

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