The Right to Speak & the Importance of Talking
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7th Jul 2016

The Right to Speak & the Importance of Talking

By Ruairi Thomas – A Journal Entry

“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” E.M.Forster

In the experience of personal difficulty, or a trauma, or a troubling thought even, there can be a tendency in many to simply close down and internalise and to be uncommunicative. Worse still is the inclination to search for someone or something to assign blame. I have certainly been ‘guilty’ of this and I recognise it intensely in that of my own mother. She is of immense importance to me and this is by no means an attack of her character (as I stated I am all too aware of my own tendency in this matter, historically).

In the case of my dear old mum, and again I do not wish to portray her in an ill favoured light (quite the opposite, I wish to liberate her – and anyone – trapped by a fear to communicate) her tendency to blame herself when things go wrong, and further, a level of inaction in those around her to manage that self-deprecation is at severe odds with one another. Take the weekend just passed: (it is now Sunday 12th June, 2016) I had visited with my family back home in Lincolnshire, namely my mother, father, sister and her two children. Living in London and working full-time it can be difficult to manage visits as often as I would like and there have been occasions when we have all not been as successful in that respect as we perhaps might be. In short, we manage a visit perhaps two or three times per year, usually on holidays like Christmas, or perhaps birthdays.

This weekend however was different, and I was perhaps more sensitive to ‘it all’ than previously. A state of perpetual mindfulness you might say. I felt very deeply for my mum, as I do my whole family, but in this case especially her as she appeared to be deeply distracted, preoccupied and generally fatigued. Her eyes were far away and seemed to bear the weight of concern for all the worries in the world, perpetually worn with that dull-grey shimmer of one about to cry or having just done so. Thankfully my mother and I managed to steal a few hours together as mother and son in the town centre. We talked of many things and I asked in earnest what her plans were for her senior years, what she wanted to achieve and the places she’d like to go. I cannot and will not divulge her desires and aspirations because of their personal nature, suffice to say I was elated to find that when given the opportunity to consider this she had legitimate and exciting answers for all. My mother is a sensitive, caring and selfless creature, though by no means weak, and one whom I sense bears the wearied soul of one devoid of any self-confidence or self-esteem, combined with that toxic need to apologise for these qualities, and perhaps beset by a deep regret at not having the courage to embrace her silent suspicions. On any typical day my mother will apologise needlessly and repetitiously twenty times or more, usually apologising on someone else’s behalf. And for these apologies there are further apologies made. As an example: my Grandmother falls ill and decides to tell no one for fear of being a burden, my mother apologises for having done nothing. I do not take butter but olive oil with bread because of a lactose intolerance, my mother apologises. My sister is under-slept and tired say, my mother apologises for that. My mother, bless her for trying, is I fear, constantly apologising for being alive. For being A*****.

Yesterday we gathered around the screen to watch an old video of my niece when she was very small, and during the course of the video we noticed our old cat, now passed away, nestled beneath the Christmas tree as she was apt to do. Upon sight of the now deceased family member, and already quite moved by the film, my mother cried, “Look it’s [Marbles] the cat! She’s there! Look!”. I have to say I was moved by my mother’s childlike response as she squealed with joy and sadness in one breath and began to cry. What followed was an off-hand comment shaped like, “You’re just crying because you’ve had a drink and seen the cat” . . . So what? Then, you guessed it, my mother apologised. This morning on the way to catch the train back to London, we called in to see my Grandmother. Upon entering the house, she (my Grandmother) emerged from the kitchen deeply distraught and in tears and said in the most pleading tone, “I am not well”. We summoned at once an ambulance and then her sister all of whom arrived on the scene in a matter of minutes. My Grandmother who has been suffering with high blood pressure, severe muscle pain, nausea – and I suspect a deep anxiety – had decided not to share her fears with her nearest and dearest for some weeks, it transpired. Standing in the wake of all this and trying to be a source of support or mainstay, I witnessed a strange and pitiful shadow of my mother and grandmother reflected. My grandmother, too afraid and not wishing to be a burden [for heaven’s sake] had kept her suffering to herself, and my mother, obviously distressed at this, began to apologise profusely at not doing anything sooner, and even referred to herself as “a bad daughter”, which is of course not true

Once the emergency services had arrived, along with my grandmother’s sister (and my family too) and the burden was shared, i.e. the physical distress incurred was clearly visible and articulated, the anxiety at least began to subside. My grandmother who is now in her eighty-fifth year and on a plethora of medication following aggressive breast cancer, two replacement hips, diabetes and a husband lost with Alzheimer’s, must have wondered whether this was the end of her life and worked herself into a frenzy in her mind. Yet when we entered the house and she saw us, it was both fear and relief that was on her face and she said, “I’m not well”, and not “I’m dying”, which I suspect she had feared. Imagine the moment. Imagine the relief. And that previous afternoon talking with my mother over coffee having her share her thoughts and hopes for the future, I saw the grief-stricken brow begin to lift too.

There is an observation worth making here. I have spent time working in the mental health sector volunteering as a Peer Support Officer and Mentor. I worked for a local branch for about year. The recurring theme that seemed to be of most value to a person who found themselves in distress was that they were able to communicate that, in some way. Indeed, there were times that I can recall when very little, if anything at all, was said. But even then I could not consider those interactions as failures because the opportunity to speak was available and even in silence, or a reluctance to speak a great deal can be learned. There are moments when there simply are no words, and there are instances when the words that are available will simply not do; they aren’t good enough. Yet even in these vacant moments there is a level of communication that can be recognised that acknowledges the limitations of our language. At times, when language or speech fails us and we are floundering on the rocks of our own despair, there are those who can see the distress and will enable our recovery.

Could it be then that our ability, and furthermore, our right to communicate ourselves effectively does not merely bind humanity as some indelible fabric, but may fetch us up from the inky depths of our despair to punch a cleansing luminescence from the soul? My theory is yes.

There is a Slovenian philosopher for whom I have a deal of affection and admiration and his name is Slavoj Zizek. I do not wish for him to become the focus of the point but to merely borrow, or paraphrase from his notions of violence. Zizek claims that even in violence, in the physical action of doing violence, there is a kind of communication (or lack thereof). In doing violence one is expressing that which one cannot express in words, that which one does not have the capacity of language for. Yet it may also be claimed then, that in that inability to ‘communicate effectively’ and acting out, one may in fact be communicating exactly one’s own feelings and sentiments, could it not? And in this case Zizek instances a ‘social upheaval’ like the London riots. On the subject of violence this was not mere ‘mindless’ behaviour, he claims, or a band of opportunist ‘thugs’ or ‘animals’ as much of the mainstream media at the time seemed to suggest, and were only too ready to print. Perhaps, if we stand back and consider this violence for a moment: a working – or oppressed – class denied a voice or representative means to communicate their frustration at being unable to feel valued or successful or relevant or able to affect change in their lives in the social construct of an arguably consumerist and materially orientated society, instead ‘communicated’ their perceived position of impotence by advancing on more affluent – by their own living standards – areas and stealing items that they felt enabled them to experience a level of material value that was to them hitherto unattainable. This writer is not condoning violence or destruction of property of any kind and there were indeed many present during that time who were not motivated by some impotent rage manifest by socioeconomic circumstance. This was perhaps the ‘wrong kind’ of protest. But this writer does acknowledge the possibility of this theory and taken merely as an example, should we choose to evaluate and discuss such events more critically instead of capitulating to an primeval and fearful and emotional reaction of dividing social groups by negatively reinforcing a ‘them and us’ mentality and blame culture (and more precisely in this case, a demonization of the working class) we as a society have already begun to raise the entire floor of how we dialogue with regards to social issues, and further, made a responsible choice to change the way we think about how we communicate.

Our ability to communicate using language i.e. words, is perhaps the definitive phenomena that sets us at an intellectual distance from other species, like the koala say, or the deer, or the house-cat. All species have very real and complex and effective means of communication, yet it is man that is able to use words to convey as articulately as possible our thoughts and feelings and views exactly, should we wish to. Do we always recognise and appreciate and indeed utilise that advantage in the best way possible? No, certainly not. There are of course ‘abuses’ of language, and misuses of language and also misinterpretations of language. Different cultures for instance invariably have different customs and means of greeting, or displays of gratitude or respect, that to another society may have another meaning entirely, and may be offensive. Nonetheless, these linguistic differences -given the proper respect and consideration – can be correctly used and understood, and therefore achieve the appropriate and desired response. Language can have, it must then be conceded, the power to ‘imprison’ us, or set us free. It is our attitude to language that will ultimately determine how that possibility is actualised.

‘Words can be weapons’. Certainly that is an old maxim we can all recognise. Well it is true. Take for instance the word ‘weapon’. A weapon might conjure images in one’s mind of the literal, like a scimitar or a tank, or perhaps a pistol. It may be something more abstract like a political campaign, or a fast car, or a piece of political art. But a weapon can also be used ‘in defence’ and not always in the aggressive, or as the aggressor. An alibi could be a weapon. A piece of literature could be used as a weapon. A protective movement of the hand – in the context of a trained martial artist – could be construed as a weapon. It stands to reason then, that in any situation the effective use of words may be classified and considered as weapons. Or indeed, defence.

Should one feel it necessary and appropriate – within the context of managing negativity – one has the ability to ‘protect’ oneself through the mechanism of speech.

The reason for this rather long preamble is because there have been times certainly when I have felt paralysed and impotent and indeed ineffective by my inability or lack of opportunity – depending on the circumstance – to speak and communicate exactly what I wanted to. Further, there have been instances that became protracted periods of time in my life when I would choose not to speak because of fear. Fear of what I might say, fear of reprisals, fear of judgment, fear of rejection, or a combination of all these things. Fear. I have let my choices be governed by fear and as a result been rendered unable to achieve any progress, or reach a solution. The only talking I seemed to be doing at those times was an internal dialogue which in hindsight and with objectivity was set to the business of self-deprecation, of cruel and unjustifiable criticism and of persuading myself to remain physically silent.

Having the courage to speak about a personal problem, no matter what it’s nature might be, and conveying one’s experience of that effectively ultimately depends on how honest one is willing to be. It is quite easy to be articulate about something; it is quite another to be honest. One of the ways in which I managed to successfully navigate my way through my depression (and this applies now to any difficulty) was to be honest about how it was affecting me. Not emotionally and psychologically. But how my focus on myself in this way was having a detrimental effect on my physical circumstances: such as my career, my ambitions, my relationships, my ability to manage time and responsibility effectively, my ability to be efficient each day and utilise my time productively, my ability to cultivate and nurture the garden of my life and harvest those investments. Once I was honest about where I typically focused my energy and the negative impact that was having on my ‘external life’, I was able to recognise where changes needed to occur and managing those changes became more realistic because I was finally clear about where the source of immobility was coming from. Furthermore, by my mid-twenties I was alone and lonely, desperately unhappy, using excuses to solve or remedy or abate those problems and struggling to maintain relationships of any kind. However, I wanted to change. Once I had understood the limitless value of language and the power of communication, and the effectiveness with which these two mighty vehicles can be managed, controlled and directed, so was I enabled a quality of dialogue and a voice that best represented who I am.

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