What Did You Say?
My daughter and I play the following word game, and others that are similar:
Breathe: Can you knot a knot?
Me: I can knot.
Breathe: You can knot?
Me: I can knot.
Breathe: Why not?
Language amazes me. And not (just) because I’m a writer. It’s fascinating to me that human beings can be talking to someone who speaks whatever language we do, and yet still have no idea what the other is saying. Even if we think we comprehend someone else’s sentences, we often learn later that we totally misunderstood their meaning. Sometimes, we think we understand, simply because our ears work and we heard their voices speaking. But, because we were daydreaming or otherwise distracted, as soon as their voice stops speaking, we realize we have no idea how to respond because we have no idea what they said. It’s truly fascinating. And it’s funny because my pastor recently wrote on his blog an article about how, in order to become wise, we must first agree on the definitions of the words we use. His article is way more eloquent and sufficient than what I’m writing will no doubt be. And it’s true.
Tonight, I went to synagogue. I am not, not, not a Jew. I passionately believe in the Gospel. And I can’t fully explain why, when I’m hurting, synagogue draws me close. I don’t know. While most of the reactions from my church are positive (my pastor called it beautiful and perfectly acceptable), a few have a difficult time understanding how I can be comfortable in the midst of people who simply do not believe Jesus was the Son of God. This post will not argue whether He is or not because, in my world, He is and I accept that no amount of logic will ever convert anyone to Christianity. Logic may convince someone to go to church, but it will take God to really break through to someone. So, that’s not my purpose. My purpose is in how sad I find it that we get all tangled up in words we don’t even understand and end up missing the point entirely. In the synagogue, they call it Torah. But the words in their Torah are also recorded in my Holy Bible. So, when they say, “Let’s read the Torah,” I hear, “Let’s read the Bible.” When they sing songs, I hear beautiful words of praise, even though the songs are sung in Hebrew. A little shiver of joy runs through me when they sing of “Avraham.” Tonight, during the first prayer, when they sang, “Baruch atah Adonai,” I pronounced it as they did, but what I heard in my head was “Blessed be the Lord” and tears instantly filled my eyes. When the rabbi opened the service, he said: “I want to tell you a short story that has nothing to do with my lesson. When our ancestors were fleeing Egypt, they came to the water. In front of them it lay, huge and un-crossable. Behind them were the Egyptians who wanted to kill them. Now we know there were hundreds of fleeing people. We know this. And I imagine that, just like we have dispersed into Orthodox and Reform and other branches of Judaism, they too could have been divided into groups. There would have been the first group and I imagine they would have been the ones going, ‘Oh, forget this, let’s just go back. Let’s just GO BACK. At least it’s safe there, and we know that life.’ Then there would have been the independent, free spirited, brave souls going, ‘No way! I don’t WANT to be a slave. I’m never going back.’ Then there would have been the third group who were just so tired and exhausted and worried that they would have just, you know, been ready to just jump in the ocean and drown. They just wanted to quit. But then.. then there would have been the fourth group, which is my favorite. This would have been the group that said, ‘Okay. Okay, quick, let’s pick a song that everybody here knows and start singing it. If we do that, they’ll start singing along with us and then, soon, we won’t be fighting, we’ll be singing. And the song they sang, I’m pretty sure, is on page 44 of your book. Let’s sing it now.” I was smiling with a vulnerable and open heart as we turned to that page and sang a song in Hebrew that basically was praising God for being the “Everlasting” One. A long time ago, I memorized the prayers and the songs in Hebrew, because they are so beautiful and because I wanted to be able to sing in the synagogue, but I don’t really speak Hebrew very well. And yet I understood everything that was being said or sang tonight. Others, though, hear the words “Torah” and “Jew” but only hear that they are not Christian. Because that’s all they can really hear, they fail to be able to appreciate worship from anyone not Jewish in a synagogue. No matter how I phrase it, no matter the words I use, they don’t understand because they can’t get past the differences. They end up fighting. The differences are great, granted, and it’s understandable, I guess, to feel a bit uncomfortable in a place that doesn’t share a major tenant of your religious belief. Be that as it is, though, isn’t it sad how we can end up arguing even though we serve the same Almighty God?
It’s the same in other areas of life, too.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll probably have noticed how, when I write sensitive and personal posts, I use the words “I was hurt.” Not “I was abused.” It’s something that I probably should work on, but don’t want to. It’s true, but the word “abuse” has connotations with it that make me want to hide. In my speeches, I’ll use bold terms like “rape,” but only because I know that, if I don’t, misunderstandings will occur. Even then, my face inevitably burns red hot and the shame comes back full force for a minute, until I’m able to rush past that sentence. In a more humorous example, I say I want a Coke when, actually, I want a Dr. Pepper because, every soda drink, in my world, is Coke. The girls’ father is from Iowa and, up there, they say “soda.” That always makes me giggle for some reason. Dictionaries don’t really help, either. I can look up the meaning of any word I want but, if your definition of the same word doesn’t match, we’ll go round in circles, frustrated because we feel we aren’t being heard. The only way to really understand one another, then, is to communicate. Really communicate. In psychology, we learned a trick that, at first, sounds a little silly. But it’s designed to help you become an active listener. When someone says something to me, I simply repeat all or some of it back in my own words. If they say, for instance, “The lesson today was hard. Long division is pointless,” I might say in return, “So you thought the lesson was hard because you don’t think you’ll need to ever use long division?” You might think someone will look at you like an idiot for doing this but, actually, they won’t. It not only shows you’re really listening, but it also validates what they said. Bottom line, we have to ask questions. But that’s only half of it. You also have to be willing to share your ideas and answer the questions with an open and teachable heart. Before we can talk about worship, I have to know what your definition of worship is because it’s likely that your definition does not match mine. If that’s the case, then, instead of calling you names, I should explain what my definition is. Then we can decide whether we agree or not on worship. Or love. Or education. Or toilet paper. When we communicate, we teach and learn simultaneously. Conversation shouldn’t be about who’s right. It should be about trying to find common ground on which to stand. We might disagree about worship, but be able to agree on what is –not– worship. We might both love music, but hate each other’s genre of choice. It’s my belief that most, if not all, arguments arise from misunderstandings. Because I don’t understand what your personal definitions of key words in our conversation are, I get my feelings hurt; then, I get angry in my own right because I don’t think you’re listening, since we just seem to start at the beginning and go in a circle. We get louder and louder, without ever being heard. We think we’re trying to communicate but we’re not. Instead, we’ve stopped caring about truth and started caring more about being right.
Communication is a way of showing others that we love them, care about them, and are interested in their lives. It’s about validating each others’ beliefs. I don’t have to be right to matter. I don’t have to be right to be happy, but if I think you’re criticizing something of value to me, then I will become defensive and, just like that, an argument starts, things we don’t mean get said and can never be taken back, hearts get wounded. My life experiences are different from yours. Yours are different than mine. Those experiences have determined the definitions of the words in my vocabulary more than any school or dictionary. But each of our lives matter. Each of our hearts matter. Each of us have made contributions to the world in which we live, and we each have failed it too. I hope I remember to take stock of these truths, the really important ones, and ask for clarification if someone says something that disturbs me. I might learn something. I might learn I’m right. I might learn I’m wrong. I probably would learn to stop basing my opinions on what others’ think. I might become a better friend. I might find peace through true understanding. I might not. Whatever the case, really communicating, really listening and really sharing, makes my relationships richer and my life brighter. So, if I repeat something you just told me in the form of a question, forgive me: I’m trying to understand.