I’ve been teaching a number of students lately who don’t speak English. I am not a bad ESL teacher, having some idea of what it is to be an ESL student and some idea now of how to speak well in English and how to teach. The big challenge is, of course, that when my student and I don’t speak each other’s language, we don’t understand each other.
That’s frustrating. We get through it, with humour, games, much pointing and silly gesticulating, pictures and a weird sign language that seems to get made up on the spot. Still, it’s annoying and maddening and hard and I remember that the temples destroyed on Tisha B’Av were not the first attempt we made to build a temple to be close to God. The tower of Babel was destroyed by God because we got too close (and too obsessed) and we’ve not understood each other since.
It’s even more annoying and maddening and hard when I think of how many times I find myself cursing language barriers, even when I’m speaking to a person in a language we’re both supposedly fluent in. This seems to be a much too frequent occurrence, described by enough people that I don’t think I’m the only one it happens to. It’s easiest to see it in movies, of course, where everything is exaggerated so we can all understand. This one says “I guess we shouldn’t see each other any more,” and you can tell that the real meaning is “please hold me and tell me it’s going to be OK, and love me and this is the only way I can tell you that I’m scared and worried about our relationship and feeling a little hopeless.” That one says, “well, let’s give it one more try,” and it’s clear that actually, it’s more like, “ew, you smell funny and are way too clingy, and I only went out with you because my Mom asked me, but I’m too polite to tell you how uncomfortable you make me.” You have this strong desire to climb through the screen and bash their heads together and explain it to them. Of course, if it’s a comedy, you laugh.
I laugh too. I laugh because I remember how lonely and awkward and sad it can feel when this happens – and how often it does – and the alternative is getting depressed and laughing is better. It’s hard to make words say what we want them to! I can think of any number of times when I’m trying to express, “wow, your last sentence was irritating but not enough to make me want to say anything so I’m not but I’m still feeling a bit uncomfortable and I’d say something except it’s too late, and you’d react really negatively and also I have this uneasy feeling that I’ve said something similar, but it really does bother me and I wish you could know that .” Instead, what comes out is an expression that mostly looks constipated.
That might be a small example, but they build up, leaving me feeling shut in to a world that’s much too small and much too lonely. I can’t stand it. It’s painful and annoying, angry making and disappointing, and broken that I can’t communicate to people. I’m reasonably good at English these days. I’ve learned many words. I can tell you the difference between a conjunction and an interjection, and what to do if you meet either one in a lonely, dark paragraph. I can explain the difference between turn on, turn in, turn up, and turn out and why none of them have much to do with rotating one’s body. I can edit essays, proofread poems, and review resumes (call me if you need any of those done). Yet still, I often feel unable to communicate.
God, I’m sure had a reason for making this so hard. Maybe humility? (“Are you feeling a bit constipated, sweetie?”) Maybe to make us work harder? Maybe to reinforce the importance of independent action? Or to teach us that communication matters? Maybe to teach about caring. It’s caring that lets those people in the romantic comedy get through that awkward conversation and finally end up happy with the partners they want. It’s caring that lets me let go of that confusing reaction to what was actually an utterly unimportant statement.
It’s Elul, and working on communication is important. I use my best language skills to write and talk about how I can connect to people. In the end though, I don’t have much. Just when I write my most brilliant words ever, I realize that no one understood a word of what I said! (“You could try some prunes…”) I’m left with exactly what I’ve got with my ESL student. We get through it, with humour, games, much pointing and silly gesticulating, pictures and most of all – caring. It’s not a fix for the tower of Babel, but it helps us laugh and it gets us through, together.
It’s the most vulnerable place in the world, asking. ‘Would you go out with me?’ ‘Can you forgive me?’ ‘Can you help me?’ ‘Can I help you?’ You risk a ‘no’, and that is terrifying. It implies that you haven’t heard or been heard well enough, that you need something that another isn’t willing to give, that you’re imposing or being demanding. A failed question denies so much more than the immediate request – it denies the depth of understanding and acceptance in a relationship. It’s hard to ask.
It’s worthwhile, of course – and people are very pro asking. Community and connection are essential in the Jewish faith, asking God even more so. ‘If the answer is no,’ we reason, ‘at least we tried.’ If we don’t ask, we’ll never get a yes.’ Asking opens the door to communication, to relationship, to that connection and intimacy that many of us desire, some of us fear, and all of us need for growth. All we can do is use our words and strive to cope with the answers.
Sometimes, the ‘no’ is just too bitter, though. When the answer is ‘no’ to questions of love, of attention, of self-worth – then it’s not easy to take. So, we go it alone. We don’t ask for help, thus admitting no weakness. We don’t ask for attention, thus admitting no desire. We work out our own answers, creating meaning for ourselves. It may be a cold, lonely place to be, but at least there’s no risk of rejection. In so many ways, not asking is safer.
So, too, is not answering. Answering is also fraught, after all. Who wants to destroy someone else’s world? That’s a lot of pressure to put on someone! On the other hand, committing to something one doesn’t want to do just to make someone else happy? Well, that leads to dysfunction and abuse, quicker than one would have thought possible. Here, it’s harder. How can one not answer? The question has been asked, hanging in the air like a sad little half-filled balloon. Will it be filled and fly away? Will it flop limply to the ground, the air having been let out of it in a quiet woosh? One has to say something.
People do a lot of tricky things to avoid answering questions. They say, ‘ask me later, I’m busy’ or ‘that’s a possibility’. They turn the question back on itself, with a ‘well, what do you think.’ They give a vague could fit anything answer, along the ‘that sounds good in principle but I’m not sure…’ or ‘let’s do that…when we next have time.’ These answers get rid of the question, yes. They don’t do much to improve communication, though. Really, best to go back to not asking the question.
Of course, no question = no communication, and one is stuck in a loop which is difficult to work with. I don’t have a way out of the loop, really. There was a time when I knew the answer to this question at least, and could say, ‘ask!’ Ask though it’s hard and embarrassing and leaves you crying because growing love is all there is, and the most important thing and so ask. Now, I’m less sure. The asking can so easily become demanding, begging, nagging, or whining – all of which are very unappealing. Maybe it’s better to make the space, and stay safe.
Now, I have fewer answers and fewer questions. I’ve become more quiet. Maybe that’s part of growing older. I still ask, just more rarely. I hope it means that the questions I do ask are more worthwhile. It’s that balance that’s the real challenge. How to ask the right questions, with courage and strength and even with joy, how to answer the questions clearly and accurately even when the answers break expectations, and how to be OK with any answer given? How to take the space when needed and not ask when asking would result in pain and unnecessary work for others? Today, I acknowledge the need for distance, for quiet silences, for spaces without words. For everything there is a time, it says in Ecclesiastes. There is a time for asking and a time for staying quiet. Today, I accept and honour those who chose not to ask.
I remember a couple of friends in university who simply could not understand each other. Anything the one would say, the other would misinterpret in a truly, fantastically dreadful way. I couldn’t even believe how off they were. We finally coined a description of their communication: ‘Can I help you clean the floor?’ ‘Stop trying to steal my vacuum cleaner.’ In fact, it got to be that among my entire bunch of friends, whenever someone felt misunderstood, they might say, ‘hey, relax; I’m not trying to steal your vacuum.’
So often, assumptions, resentments, expectations, emotions, selfishness and self-centeredness get in the way of understanding. For me, also, there’s the fact that I’m less adept at reading body language and verbal tone than some (not that I’m dreadful – I’ve had years of practice, and I would say I’m getting better all the time – but I still miss quite a bit that some others catch.) Since that’s 95% of communication, I have the potential to miss a lot.
Lack of understanding is a big factor of what then leads to hurt feelings. If I didn’t understand how important something is, I may not have taken the proper care to ensure it happened. I may think ‘oh, I missed this one little task – no biggie, I’ll take care of it later.’ The other person might be thinking, however, ‘she doesn’t care, for if she did, she’d know this was important and wouldn’t miss it.’ I might think I’m helping when someone else thinks I’m being in the way. I might be trying to give someone space and he might see it as coldness. All in all, misunderstandings lead to hurts.
I’ve been looking for a way to understand better and to be better understood for years. The Jewish tradition says study of Torah helps with understanding the world, so I try to study. On the other hand, learning only from a book can lead to that cobweby bookstore feeling where one doesn’t know people at all. Experience is needed too.
A lot of understanding, mind you, is getting rid of dignity. No one wants to say ‘you’re in the way’ or ask ‘did I mention that already?’ It’s embarrassing to have to ask. I feel like I should just know, instinctively. Since I don’t though, asking is my best bet, and the only way I can do that is to be cool with the chance of embarrassment. It also means I have to admit my imperfections. Yes, I do forget the things I have to do sometimes. Once I accept that I’m human and they’re human, once I up the questions – I increase the understanding.
Sometimes I wonder how I write. I am not the most intelligent person in the world – there are so many that think better. When I read the words of really good writers, I am abashed and embarrassed to even put pen to paper. I know my words don’t sound as good or as flowy. I know that I don’t know enough to write. Especially, I don’t know enough about Judaism. I like to study and read – but I am not as regular or as determined about it as I should be and so my writing isn’t based in years and years of solid study. There are so many better qualified.
Yet, I love writing. Whether with a pen on paper or with the simple clicks of my computer keys, I like producing long flowing sentences, phrases that correspond to the thoughts in my head and the emotions in my heart. I like the connection with you – by the way, yes, it matters if you hit ‘like’ or comment. It’s the only feedback I get, and negative feedback is, as every parent knows, way better than none.
So, how do I have the khutzpa (brazen pride, hubris, daring) to blog? It’s a big question. It’s a question that underlies my life right now because everything I do requires an incredible amount of hutzpa. How can I parent beautiful, clever children full of their own feelings and ideas? How can I tell them to do this and not to do that? Am I sure I’m right? It’s not like I always eat my vegetables before having my dessert. What gives me the right to tell them to eat theirs? How can I teach, knowing the information I pass on is partially inaccurate and possibly not useful? How can I tell people that something is a certain way when it is only sometimes any which way whatsoever? How can I teach subjects I don’t even know? A substitute’s life is full of adventure, as is a parent’s. I have given instruction in such hilariously inappropriate areas as Italian and figure skating and I know so little of either one that it would be funny – if it wasn’t also scary that I was the best equipped to teach them at the time.
I’m not necessarily always the best equipped. Really, there are so many people who are better than me these days that I sometimes think I’d be better off with a job where I did something simple that didn’t affect people much (painting widgets, maybe or putting stickers on fruit). Yet, instead, I write. I teach. I parent. And I do them all in the full knowledge – with the fear and trembling that comes with that – that I’m probably doing them wrong.
It is an awe-filled gift and curse to want to write, to want to teach. Those who need to communicate, whatever form they use, be it art or ministry, child-care or well-written memos, massage or cakes – those who need to communicate know that it’s impossible to do as well as one would like. It’s equally impossible not to do it and to live truly, though.
That’s why I write. What God gives me is limited ability, great responsibility and a need to express myself through this medium. So, I put pen to paper (or fingers to keys), pray to God for guidance and let the poor, misformed, clumsy words come forth, knowing that I don’t know what I’m doing. It is my way of giving myself to my community, to God, to my world. I don’t know that the gift is a good one or a worthy one but it’s what I have to give and I think for me, it’s my responsibility, my need, my purpose to do so.