Words are not necessary.
It’s not a finding in our research* just yet (although it very well may be), but the phrase the woman on my lectio and centering prayer app recites to me every morning to guide me into meditation and contemplation. But even though she’s been saying it for at least months, possibly years, it’s only recently stuck out to me as a sentence that matters, because my life is teaching me to listen.
A few weeks ago when I was conducting a delightful visit for our disability and joy research project, an insightful informant asked me if I myself am satisfied with the approach that they’re taking to Lucia’s communication at her school. It was a lightbulb moment for me. Of course it makes sense that as a parent of a nonverbal (although I really prefer the term extra-verbal) child with disabilities in conducting this project, I myself am searching for greater meaning, greater connection, and better communication with my kid.
But I realized, as so many parents in our project thus far, that what I’m really concerned about are the efforts and abilities of those around Lucia to appreciate her extra-verbal communications. There’s a tendency in our hyper-verbal culture to denigrate the extra-verbal contributions of people with disabilities or to spend all our time trying to make their communications like verbal people rather than appreciating them for what they are. There’s a tendency to rank modes of communication, to prioritize certain modes over others, rather than truly listen.
But what I know to be decidedly true is that I love being with Lucia. I talk sometimes when we’re together, but it’s never occurred to me that she doesn’t respond because she does, perhaps with a furtive glance, a sheepish smile, a dart in her eyes, a babble a chuckle, a startle, and more often than not, her silence is a gift. If I was with anyone else (in fact my husband just complained about this a few days ago!), I’d feel beholden to insert words to bind us together, but Lucia reminds me that words are not necessary, and that putting them on a pedestal, even for writers and poets and perhaps especially pastors tends to deny the stuff that makes the words–the people, their presence, their silence, the mystery–meaningful.
In one of our very first interviews one of the mothers told us earnestly and assuredly that her daughter was a terrific companion. And so is Lucia. And if I could have one thing in life I think it would be that others could experience that, know that, believe it, rather than pitying or assuming that what Lucia doesn’t do defines or mars her ability to communicate. The project itself comes from a deep conviction that we’re missing out on something about what it means to be human, because we haven’t learned to listen to people with disabilities, their families, and what it means to them to communicate. We haven’t honed this way of being human that is valid, that matters, and that is unique.
And so despite my introspection in that moment of research, to assume that I’m doing this project to make my kid a better communicator or to even tease out or enhance something that’s there but not just refined enough, would be antithetical to everything she has taught me and is teaching me. Conversation if you think about it, communication, demands and relies upon silence and space to make its meaning–without it, it’s cacophony, chaos, babel, just words. And it demands listening, attentiveness, paying attention not just to those words but to the space between.
In my love affair with centering prayer, I’ve found it so freeing to know that sighs to God are worthy, venerable, meaningful communication and that words are not necessary, not just to pray, but also for God to work. But when I’m in spiritual direction sometimes I smart because I feel like I circle back to the same insights about God and faith over and over and over again. Am I really growing if I keep coming back to the same lessons? I exasperatedly ask. And then my spiritual director reminds me that growth happens in circles, concentric circles that wind their way, but toward depth, not necessarily great breadth or height or length, as the world imagines learning to be.
And so here’s Lucia, patiently, quietly, daringly reminding her mama that being different, being quiet, listening, and leaning in are good things in this world of competing, calculated, cacophonous communication. If when it’s all said and done, she and the other families we have spent time with have only just taught us to listen, well, then we will have learned much more than we we started. We will have found a depth to communication that we often slight and ignore, we will have found a dignity in difference that we so often dismiss or deny, and we will have found out not just some things about words but about the people who somehow teach without them, the people who remind us that our humanity is so much more than just words.
*I’ve been leading an ethnographic research project with families with children with disabilities who are nonverbal and we’re studying cultures of communication and joy this summer. You can follow along with the research through some of my recent posts: Telling my story and How it feels to be free. (And I’m sure we’ll publish something academic-y someday, too.)