I had a peculiar sort of unhelpful attempt at communication the other day. It was the day after my eye surgery. The post-op exam began with a nurse taking the usual vital signs and then asking how my eye felt.
What an odd question. How was my eye supposed to feel? I had a new eye, one that I had never had before. What words would be useful in explaining what it felt like to me? I was unfamiliar with it. What would be the proper way for it to feel a day after surgery? What would be an improper way? For that matter, what does the word feel mean?
Do you have any discomfort?, she asked. Well, my eye had been taken apart and put back together again with some new parts, so, yes, I felt discomfort, but so what? Wouldn’t that be normal? What would be abnormal and worrisome? Explain discomfort. I needed better clues.
Can you see well? Certainly I could see things I never saw before without strong glasses, but is that what well is? Things were also blurry, which, I learned later is normal. Should I have said something like, “Ah, yes everything is blurry, just like it’s supposed to be?” The conversation was going nowhere, raising my level of anxiety, and her level of frustration.
Qualitative questions, such as How do you feel?, make sense only if there is some common sharing of what the particular feeling at issue is like under varying conditions that are often experienced in common ways. For instance, we call it the common cold because it is a disease that is widely shared with symptoms that are similar enough for each of us to have some idea of what the other is feeling. My guess is that that sort of commonality is more rare than it is common.
One might ask another clutching his chest, “Are you having a heart attack?” A common response is often “I don’t know, I’ve never had one before.” What’s common here is a shared ignorance of what a heart attack might feel like. Colds and heart attacks are two examples that could lead to dozens of others, which might be entertaining but also lead us off track.
It would have been helpful to me if the nurse had given me a rundown of sensations that would be normal for a person to experience after successful surgery. I could have agreed that I experienced those sensations, or described others. In two weeks I will go back for surgery on the other eye, and, having some experience to build on, will have some idea of what to expect. I’ll be able to say something to the nurse based on at least the beginnings of a shared vocabulary.
I don’t expect to go through eye surgery again when this is all done, and that makes it a unique event in my life. My vocabulary about the event will be limited and soon forgotten. But it’s not a unique event in the lives of the clinicians who do it day after day. For them it’s a common event with a large shared vocabulary to use in discussing facts, thoughts and feelings.
The same thing is true for most patients passing through our hospitals and clinics. The patient experiences a unique event for which they have a very limited vocabulary that is not shared in common with their ordinary, daily acquaintances. The clinicians experience a common event for which they have a very large vocabulary held in common. How will they ever make sense to each other? Do they possess enough patience to make it happen? Not very often, I’ll bet.
So let’s leave the clinic behind. What about other arenas? I’m a pastor and counselor. My days are filled with theology, philosophy and psychology. I have a circle of friends with whom I can converse at length through a shared vocabulary that is rich in history, tradition, and nuance of meaning. But the people who sit in the pews each Sunday, or who are visiting with me in my living room, are not fluent in God talk and psychobabble. Some of them are familiar enough with church behavior and worship to get along with ease as long as things don’t change too much. For others, it’s a unique experience for which they have almost no vocabulary and do not know what to expect.
The burden is on me to do two things. First, and by far the most important, is to learn something of their vocabulary, enough to discover places where my conversation with them might begin. They must be the teacher, and I the student. The second, and less important, is to begin to teach them enough of the language of God talk, or psychobabble, for their conversation with me to begin. For example, I’ve been a fire chaplain for about ten years. It took two or three years for me to learn enough of their language to earn trust and enter into a competent level of conversation. On the other hand, and for the most part, they are not interested in learning God talk or psychobabble, and that’s OK. It seems to be enough for them that someone who does know that language is there to love and care for them. I’m not very good at either, but sometimes good enough is good enough.
The thing is, it’s not all about professionals. It’s also about you and me as friends, neighbors, and strangers who happen to bump into each other. It would be insanity to think that we could be intimate with everyone we meet. Jesus, it seems, could do that, but we are not Jesus. What we can do is to learn something of the vocabulary that is unique to each of the persons in our many circles of family, friends, co-workers and close acquaintances. We don’t have to learn it all. This isn’t therapy or inquisition. We only have to learn enough for authentic conversation to begin.
Too often, we are not willing to do even that. I meet each Tuesday with a small clergy group to study the lectionary. It’s always enjoyable, but one member consistently finishes other’s statements and questions, and is usually wrong. She is, I suspect, disinterested in the other other’s vocabulary. Another takes every story told by the other and incorporates it into a story of her own as if the other had never spoken. Worlds other than the world in which she lives appear to be of little interest because they don’t really exist. Having said that, I wonder how they would describe my ignorance, illiteracy and arrogance? Yet we struggle together week after week, year after year, to better understand God’s word, and to find ways to love each other. Sometimes good enough is good enough, and love really does cover a multitude of sins.
The lesson, if there is one, is to work on the discipline of always and everywhere asking two questions: What vocabulary am I using, and is it common between us? What vocabulary is she using, and do I know enough of it to begin an authentic conversation.
Any thoughts to add?