Writers write. Teachers teach. Preachers preach. The vocations are distinct, to be sure. Writers seek to say something authentic and true, to “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” Teachers hope to meet students where they are, leading them along step-by step. Preachers long to say something worthy of God that speaks to God’s people at this moment in history. But all three work with words, and I long to handle words well in all three spaces.

And yet, the events of the last week have left me without words, swallowed up by anger and grief at the murder of George Floyd. His death compounds upon countless others, from Ahmaud Arbery to Emmit Till, each name representing an irreplaceable image of God.

When the world is burning, who can write? Who can find words sufficient to the moment? Even if I could find them, would they matter? Isn’t part of the problem too many words? The cacophony of speech that drowns out other, oft-neglected voices?

I’m sitting in front of my computer, trying to write a book about hope, an essay about art, and a sermon about anger, but it all seems so empty.

I often think of words as the small boats that carry me through the waves of each week, but these boats are too small to survive the flood that fills my social media feeds.

And yet here I add my daily offering of words – not to take away my sin – but to own it, in hope of healing.

To seek ways of being present that do not require my words.

To listen to voices I’ve neglected.

To repent and make reparation.

And to ask the Holy Spirit to teach me how to pray, with groans too deep for words.

“The most that any of us can do is to fashion something—an object or ourselves –and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak.”

Ernst Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Simon & Schuster), 285

The failure of communication… allows precisely for the bursting open of pity, generosity, and love. Such failure invites us to find ways to discover others besides knowing. Communication breakdown is thus a salutary check on the hubris of the ego. Communication, if taken as the reduplication of the self (or its thoughts) in the other, deserves to crash, for such an understanding is in essence a pogrom against the distinctness of human beings.

John Durham Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 16.
Photo by Mike Von on Unsplash

2 Comments

  • Rachel Rim says:

    That John Durham Peters fascinates me. I’m trying to think about the degree to which I agree with it. It feels fitting on the one hand to say that there’s communion beyond linguistic communication… On the other hand, the language about it being a pogrom against the distinctiveness in humans leaves me unsettled. But in re-reading it, I feel like it’s saying something deeper than what I’m grasping. Would be interested to hear your thoughts on the passage.

    As an aside, I’ve found myself without words lately too, so yesterday I just went back to a number of spoken word videos by black artists that I used to watch in high school. It shouldn’t be confused as direct, active solidarity, I know, but it felt right to immerse myself in their words instead of my own, and to listen to their creative expressions of the black experience. You might appreciate some of them as well, given our shared love for creative language.

    • mm Justin Bailey says:

      Hi Rachel, thanks for the comment. In the larger argument Peters is arguing that gaps in communication are inevitable, and that expanded means (and technological advances in media) will not mean expanded minds. In other words, if we understand successful communication as a sort of reduplication (what is in my mind is identical with what is in your mind) then it is not only doomed to fail but an affront to the irreducibility of human experience. That doesn’t mean that nothing can be shared in common, only that complete understanding is impossible. Nevertheless, as Mel likes to say, we can love completely without complete understanding. At least that’s how I understand it. =)

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