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Silence, Air, and Paradoxes

Dan's picture

          Although I want to respond to my first web event on active listening, I don’t think I will be able to. I’ve learned so much about communication and how communication is affected by privilege since that reflection that I have to move in another direction.

            This past week in the 360 has been an emotionally charged one – challenging, frustrating, belief shaking. After Tuesday’s class, I felt so confused about my voice, about my place in the world and my privilege that I walked out of class in a daze, and ended up screaming in the woods with Johanna. After Thursday’s class on academia, rationality, and coherence, I was flooded with doubts about how I speak and write. My classes have never left me feeling so vulnerable and uncertain about everything – so I’m in a place of utter confusion.

            I have always thought that identity was something fluid, fragmented, and ever changing, but that value I place on communication has remained, and even as my ideas about how I relate to my identity and environment have changed, articulation, intentional speech and listening have been a core piece of how I understand myself.  It’s tied to the idea of the Oceanic self—which is a psychoanalytic way of describing something I consider extremely spiritual. When we are born, before we know we have a body and a contained identity, we feel connected to everything. Our perception, what we are seeing and feeling, is fluid and we do not relate what we take in to our own distinct ego. This changes when we see ourselves in the mirror (the mirror stage) and realize we have a body and that our perception is contained, so we begin to develop an ego. This continues as we acquire language and enter into the social world. Language becomes a tool to translate our needs and communicate with others. Then, when we are socialized, we have to regulate this translation and all of our expressions depending on the rules of the institution-- like etiquette, manners, identity expression appropriateness, etc., and so to master these codes, we have to fit ourselves into these symbols. Thus, language can actually keep us very separate from each other.

            However, I’ve been devoted to combating that. I really want to be able to build something meaningful and authentic in language. I want to connect and share experiences as transparently as possible.

            But this was problematized dramatically for me this week --- both why I’m using my voice and the vocabulary I’ve been using to speak.  First the Delpit article outlined and explicitly defined my privilege in ways that had until then never been as clear to me, and therefore made me realize that, yes, I can value communication and language and expression more than anything – more than institutional success or money or other things people value, because I do not really have to worry about those things (or at least, not nearly as much as many other people). I was born into the culture of power and therefore I can reject it.

            The class discussion about the Delpit article was so powerful because those of us in the class were impacted very differently by the piece – for some (like me) the extent of our privilege was articulated so loudly and clearly by hearing the stories and emotions of those who grew up marginalized by the culture of power.

            I come from a very low-income family – but they, like me – chose to reject it (for them it was mainstream capitalist culture they were rejecting). Before I was born, my parents moved to an intentional community in rural West Virginia, where people farm, make art, and live with a shared purpose of educational and spiritual growth. Everyone on the community went to college (or received some form of high education)—and for me, even though we did not have money, going to college was ‘of course’ – and in this academic setting, I have never felt fear of expressing myself, or as if I knew less or lacked educational advantages.

            I value expression and words and communicative connection – and so Bryn Mawr has been a model I could navigate and be excited about performing in. I’ve been taking English, Film, Creative Writing, and Linguistics classes for three years, and now I’m writing my thesis on David Foster Wallace and postmodern communicative attempts at transparency.  But this vocabulary I’ve been acquiring—is it working against itself? If I desire above all else to build something with others—to reach transparency and connect, am I only going to be able to do that with those who have a similar vocabulary? How connected are thoughts to words? If these big, fascinating, highly specialized words are supposed to make things more specific, they are more often than not working against themselves because they aren’t accessible. So yeah, maybe I’ll be able to articulate myself more clearly and eloquently, but less often. Words are beautiful, and I love them – but they are also oppressive and isolating, and I’m in a place in which I don’t know how to reconcile that.

           So now that the self I was two weeks ago has been turned on her head (due to these things I’ve described and about 100 other paradoxes I’ve just discovered) I think the only thing I feel confident about is that it’s about time for me to be quiet. I’ve been eager to share my voice in all my classes and employ the specialized vocabulary I’ve been developing, but now that what I valued has been swept away by problematic contradictions and all I can clearly see is my privilege, I need to put both in check. I need to listen so much more, and when I do speak, it should be as a listener. I feel kind of hollow—like I’m full of air and paradoxes, and nothing is true with a capital T. 

I’ll leave you with a poem that says what my words can't.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field. I'll meet you there.


When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other" doesn't make any sense.