Saturday, October 25, 2014

Precision of Language and the Power of Voice

I am self-conscious about a number of my traits: physical attributes, personality quirks, and things that are uniquely me. The one thing I am most self-conscious about is my voice.

There are a lot of reasons I'm so self-conscious about my voice. My voice, for what it's worth, is not only uniquely me, and not only a significant expression of my personality quirks, but my voice is what it is precisely because of the unseen physical attributes of my vocal folds and diaphragm.

My voice tells people more than I want it to. Others hear my anxiety when I am trying to keep it together; others feel my excitement when I'm trying to express something important without overwhelming; others hear the irritation and impatience when I'm trying to be polite and respectful while explaining for the fortieth time in this conversation that I do know what I'm doing and I do not have to justify my knowledge to anyone; others hear and know and sometimes they even understand when my voice goes silent.

My voice has gotten me into trouble in nearly every place I've ever been. My voice has been a source of immense pain in every relationship I've ever had.

I was repeatedly silenced and made invisible as a child when I used my voice to speak out again abuse and injustice in my home.

I remember clearly one moment when I was about eight years old: though I did not want to, I was forced to give voice to sacred hymns that felt like lies and tasted bitter in my mouth or risk public humiliation and chastisement from my grandmother in the middle of a church service.

Once, in my teen years, I stopped speaking entirely for two weeks because I was in so much pain all words were lost to me. I received praise from those closest for the fact that I had begun to whither and fade.

In college I was told to stop asking so many clarifying questions when a professor would make two completely contradictory statements in the course of a lecture, leaving me to wonder how we ought to weight the information he was providing us.

I used to like some forms of music in some contexts and I used to love singing. Until I was told, every single time I sang for the pure pleasure of engaging the music, that I was flat and could sound so much better if I'd do a little work. This was told to me by a vocal coach who even offered to give me a few lessons. When I sought to accept this gracious offer, I was turned away. The criticism, however, continued, until I stopped singing entirely.

I do not sing now. And I rarely listen to music.

At work, my boss greeted me early one more as he came into the office. I greeted him back quite cheerfully and within two minutes received an email that if I continues to be disruptive in the work environment corrective action up to and including termination would be issued.

I've never greeted my boss again.

A few months later, I received a call from a very angry individual. Rather than get caught up in the anger and anxiety, I chose to modulate my voice, speak soothingly, and try to maintain control of the call so as to find a satisfactory resolution that met both the caller's and the company's needs. In the middle of the call I received a message from my boss telling me I wasn't being loud enough and he expected me to be more myself immediately or HR would be involved.

Those two incidents occurred in the same work place; the remarks were made by the same boss.

I hate my voice in almost every context in which I use or refrain from using it.

I am careful and intentional in how I use it in almost all situations.

It is not just the tone and volume that I seek and so miserably fail to modulate. I am also incredibly intentional in the words I choose when I give voice to my thoughts, feelings, ideas, and needs. Perhaps because the tone of my voice is often misinterpreted by so many I have become more careful and intentional in how I use my words.

I had been uninterested in reading Lois Lowry's The Giver because the synopsis read like a teen-ified, watered down version of George Lucas's THX 1138.

By happy accident, my niece and I were at a book store and upon seeing the book, she passionately urged me to buy and read it. She had enjoyed it immensely and thought I would love it as well.

So, I picked it up and when I was done with two books on my "Next to be Read" list, I started it.

I loved the book and perhaps if I were younger or less well read or completely unfamiliar with Utopian fiction, I would not have known what was going on from page one. As it was, I enjoyed it despite the fact that I could see the big reveal coming from the start.

Though I knew what was going on, I was actually quite drawn to the community Lowry had created. After all, release seemed a small price to pay for a community that operated so smoothly and in which precision of language was such an extraordinarily high value.

I began to feel drawn in and even found myself desiring such a community in my own life, where people say what they mean and mean what they say; where words are chosen carefully, intentionally, and precisely; where tone and feeling are less important than sentence structure and diction.

Until I read Asher's review at the ceremony for Twelves:
"When the committee began to consider Asher's Assignment," she went on, "there were some possibilities that were immediately discarded. Some that would clearly not have been right for Asher.
"For example," she said, smiling, "we did not consider for an instant designating Asher the Instructor of Threes."
The audience howled with laughter. Asher laughed too, looking sheepish but pleased with the special attention. The Instructor of Threes was in charge of the acquisition of language....
The punishment used for small children was a regulated system of smacks with the discipline wand: a thin, flexible weapon that stung painfully when it was wielded. The Childcare specialists were trained very carefully in the discipline methods: a quick smack across the hands for a bit of minor misbehavior; three sharper smacks on the bare legs for a second offense.1 
Honestly, even at this point, I was still enamored of the community Lowry had created. Though the discipline seemed harsh for one so young, the payoff for precision seemed well worth it.

I continued to read:
Poor Asher, who always talked too fast and mixed up words, even as a toddler. As a Three, eager for his juice and crackers at snacktime, he one day said "smack" instead of "snack" as he stood waiting in line for the morning treat.
Jonas remembered it clearly. He could still see little Asher, wiggling with impatience in the line. He remembered the cheerful voice calling out, "I want my smack!"
The other Threes, including Jonas, had laughed nervously. "Snack!" they corrected. "You meant snack, Asher!" But the mistake had been made. And precision of language was one of the most important tasks of small children. Asher had asked for a smack.
The discipline wand, in the hand of the Childcare worker, whistled as it came down across Asher's hands. Asher whimpered, cringed, and corrected himself instantly. "Snack," he whispered.
But the next morning he had done it again. And again the following week. He couldn't seem to stop, though for each lapse the discipline wand came again, escalating to a series of painful lashes that left marks on Asher's legs. Eventually, for a period of time, Asher stopped talking altogether, when was a Three.2 
I cried. I cried for Asher. I cried for myself. I cried for all those whose voices have been silenced through the years and whose voices continue to be silenced today. I cried for all of the words that are used in place of discipline wands and which leave scars much deeper on the soul.

I sought out my partner and a hug of comfort.

The next morning, I went to church, a place where my voice is not only accepted and encouraged but sought out for the purpose of reading scripture.

I feel at home in this community that sees my greatest weakness as a strength and a gift. I feel grateful to have found this place.


1. Lois Lowry, The Giver (New York: Laurel-Leaf, 1993), 54.
2. ibid., 55.

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