Monday, September 14, 2020

Beyond Our Words

When our daughter Josephine was little, we tried out a new dentist based upon the recommendation of a friend. She was nervous and began to cry. The dentist awkwardly tried to soothe her, then turned to me to say, "She thinks that if she cries she can get out of it." This made Josephine cry harder.

I was stunned (rage at the dentist would come later) and began trying to calm her, which I knew, even as a young parent, meant not dismissing her tears, but rather acknowledging them and the fear behind them. I held her hand, ignored the dentist who continued voicing her chirpy bromides of dismissal and shame, and assured Josephine that I was there and that I wouldn't let her get hurt. 

At the time of that miserable visit to the dentist I was not experienced enough as a parent to have the confidence to just walk out, which is what I would today recommend to anyone who finds themself in a similar situation. Yes, tears can be used manipulatively, but a person who is cynical enough to attribute such ulterior motives, not to mention acting skills, to a preschooler, has no business working with them.

Anyone who has spent a lot of time around young children has spent a lot of time around a lot of crying. Indeed, at any given moment in preschool, it's likely that someone is in tears over something. Crying is our first "word" so to speak, one that is used to communicate everything from hunger to discomfort to exhaustion. It's a call to the adults to do their job, their primary job, which is to care for them. Sometimes it's simple to console them -- we return a dropped blankie to their hands, we remove the pine needle that is poking their tender flesh, we sing to them to assure them they are not alone -- but as any parent knows, sometimes children are, at least given our ability to figure it out, inconsolable. If that makes us feel helpless, imagine how they must feel.

As we get older and begin to learn more words, we become increasingly adept at communicating exactly what it is that makes us cry, but there are still times when words are inadequate, when the feeling we are experiencing is beyond the inadequacies of the simple words we know, like "sad" or "mad" or "hurt." The feeling is too immediate, too intense, too surprising, or too new, and like the outrage I felt after-the-fact toward that dentist, it is beyond our experience to know what to do or say. Words, at least the words at our disposal at the moment, are simply inadequate for the situation. 

We say to children, "Use your words," a command that young children in the throes of experiencing their wordless feeling, are often incapable of obeying. As we get older, as we gain experience, we tend to cry less often, but our tears still must suffice when words fail us. As adults, our tears are often a source of shame. We apologize for them. We show them only to our loved ones if even then, which is too bad, especially now in this time of disease, poverty, fire, and social unrest, when we are all having feelings that are beyond our words and the only consolation is one another.


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