Saturday, August 13, 2011
Giving It A Name
“If you don’t have a word for it, you can’t talk about it.”
The sentence struck deep into my soul, as I munched my sandwich, listening to the meeting’s keynote speaker.
She was talking about sexual violence, how even the professionals in the field can’t seem to always communicate well with each other. She had a point, and gave us some good examples. The woman next to me, the director of a women’s shelter in Portland, agreed. She, too, found the sentence an eye opener.
My sister in law had written about the idea, trying to wrap her head around the experience she had with a young couple. She manages a cemetery and they wanted to find a plot for their young son. My sister in law asked them for the name of the funeral home and said she needed a copy of the death certificate.
When the couple tearfully told her they had suffered a miscarriage, and they just wanted a quiet place for their son, so they could come visit him, she broke down and cried with them, discovering that we need a word for some feelings, some experiences. Our world leaves some pretty important life changing experiences unnamed.
I visit a young man in prison. He’s there for seven years and he’s half way through. He’s been labeled as a sex offender, but he’s so much more than that. His upbringing, or, more accurately, the lack of it, and his life has cut him off from healthy emotions. He’s working hard to figure out his place in the world, and how to be a man. In the last six months, he’s learned a lot of new vocabulary. Using words to describe emotions is new to him, and he’s moving into a new world.
He cries more now, when we talk, digging deep inside of himself, and talking about the past, and how he’s feeling inside today. This is scary stuff, and he’s discovering new words to help him say what is really going on inside of himself these days. The new words in his vocabulary are letting him do some healthy pruning in his life, and looking at his past with some new tools. The new growth in his soul fits him well, and he’s starting to use his big smile.
I’m thinking of my prison buddy, and my sister in law, as the speaker brings me back into the room, asking us if our culture has a word for the woman who miscarries. Is she “mother”? How does she see herself now, a woman who was pregnant but now is not, and has no baby in her arms to share with the world?
The lady next to me at the meeting ponders out loud, “What about a woman who’s had an abortion? Do we have a word for that experience?”
The room of a hundred people, people caring enough about sexual violence, rape, and exploitation of people in intimate relationships, people who have traveled hundreds of miles on a beautiful August day, to sit in a room and wrestle with this topic, is abuzz. The speaker has stirred us up, challenging us to think about the words we use, and the words we don’t have, as we go about this important work.
If we, the professionals, the movers and shakers in this movement, can’t find the words, and if we struggle to find the words just to communicate with each other, perhaps we need to take a look at how we listen to our clients, and all the other people we deal with as we go about our work?
When I get home that night, I open my fat Oxford dictionary, the only book in the house that takes up an entire shelf, and look for the word “mother”. Yeah, she’s right, the scholarly description doesn’t really cover the experience of a miscarriage. Or, the scared young woman who ponders an abortion. My mental list of wordless experiences grows.
How can I describe something in my life, the experience, the angst, the doubt, the pain, if we don’t have words for what it is?
If we name it, we can describe it, we can call it out of the shadows of our nightmares, and give it recognition, give it identity. Yes, that is what this feeling is. Yes, that is what this experience is.
And, now that it has a name, we can deal with it. We have to deal with it.
It has a name.