When the “Unsayable” is Spoken
Over the last decade, I have been a part of a men’s community. In this group, our kinship revolves around an ongoing process of what many call “work.” This work, due to our Christian naming, is a process in which salvation and redemption are applied to the realities of our broken lives. Wholeness, which many may see as an essential part of, if not the purpose of salvation, is what we strive for. Integrity means integration, thus all things must be brought into the circle of trust. All things must be submitted to the mind of Christ. All things must be brought out of the silence into a trusting reverent moment where the men are gathered.
Over the years I have been blessed to hear hundreds of stories. Many are filled with laughter and light and the blessings of loving families and communities. Scores of others are mingled with a mix of deep anguish and loss as well as the elation of undeserved blessing and enlargement. Occasionally, through the narrative of a particular man, the group steps into a dark shadowy land of malevolent energy that can only be named as evil. In these moments what has been wordless and voiceless begins to find sound.
At a very primal level, words are merely sounds. They are utterances to which we apply meaning. It appears that some feelings are difficult to name and thus we hum or sing nonsense phrases. Other sounds are much more difficult to identify because they are rarely if ever spoken and they are off putting in their manifestation. In the book Unsayable, author & therapist, Annie G. Annie Rogers tell us that “whatever is terrifyingly present in our body, yet unsayable takes on a coded form in our speech and actions.” I have learned that nearly all the unsayable is a coded poetry, a dance with words that reveal a heinous crime against someone’s very soul. As much as emotionally returning as best one can to the scene of the crime is essential, it is the lifelong trauma that marks the body becoming invisible and inarticulate that makes these stories intolerable and agonizing.
The first inklings of some kind of significant brokenness in a man may be a rupture in his speech pattern. People can offer up the most horrendous experience and treatment with cold detachment. When the sense of disconnection between words and emotion is significantly disengaged from reality, it is usually the case that deep trauma has offered up a counter narrative that rules the conscious mind. I hear over and over again, “Well he is a nice guy. He did not mean to do that. She was suffering a lot herself. They were just acting upon a long held prejudice or hatred. As right as those assertions may seem to the logical mind, bringing these wounds to remembrance is challenging. This is due to the emotionally charged repressed knowing which is fighting to tell the truth but is unsure and undecided. How could this have happened? These memories seem so wrong. My father could not have done this. My uncle was a good man. My family had so much going for them. These interpretations could go on a life time and for some they do. Some of us will never ask the deeper questions, look beneath the quandary, or touch the tender and sore spots on the soul.
But it is the confounding nature of our experience that forces our souls into ambivalence. Part of this is denial’s gift as facing the shocking realities of our histories can force our bodies into the involuntary sickness of revulsion. For some of the men, this may be their first time that they have admitted indeed what has happened to them. This is the first time they named the pain within. This is the power of silence. Much of what has marked the body is written in invisible ink. It is nigh unto impossible to to detect without an interpreter or a spiritual curator who is schooled in the historically charged world of soulish antiquities. As though ancient hieroglyphics, this offering up of the unsayable becomes a shared language as others who know their own dialect offer up questions to the story teller. Time after time we would watch sounds and words call up something out of the ordinary, plant it in a man’s body and watch it remake his world. This is why we often ask a man, “Where is it in your body?” What we are asking is, “Where has your emotional storage of that experience been located in or on your body? Where do you keep these secrets? What part of your body holds the secret?”
What if I told you the truth? What if I could? Robert Pinsky
I might not be able to carry it, Mr. Frodo, but I can carry you!
The indicators of something sorely wrong are often first manifest in the voice, visage or posture of a man. There appears a crack in the silence and falling out of this previously hidden place we may hear a muttering or a low pitched whine. His head may slump towards his knees,. He may stare into space for long periods of time and say nothing. When he does begin to speak one can hear sounds nearly animal like. It often shakes the soul and sends chills up the spine. Sometimes the opening crack closes as quickly as it appeared and the man must be asked by another, “Where were you just now?” Over and over again you will hear the man say, “What do you mean where was I? I am right here.” Once again the query from another, “No…where did you go inside yourself. You changed. Your face, your voice, your pose. Where was that place you went?”
Usually when one is unconsciously coming upon the unsayable, the body will begin to fidget and show signs of inner terror. In the case of men who see themselves as stoic and strong, it may only appear in slight and hardly detectable body ticks. If you know the man, you may see a tick that usually comes out during stress or intense situations. Now here they are sitting in a circle with men and those same body messages are beginning to rise to the surface. If we are quiet and stay in a position of sacred listening, the man may just begin to utter the unspeakable. This is the place Christ has always been. This is the place He desires to inhabit. For His presence to be acknowledged one can only go there. Go there again. No one who has experienced the unspeakable will ever desire to go there again. In fact, many have made an invisible pact with their most vulnerable childlike self to never ever allow themselves to be in that position again. Thus, all the resources here to date the unconscious has mustered to protect are now fighting the healing. The unconscious has no script to read. It does what it is told. To untell it is to reprogram a number of stories (therapists call them complexes) and listen to and rename countless things. That is why we call it work. It will take a lifetime.
I have heard many stories that are nearly unbearable. No! They are unbearable to hear. Often when someone is sharing their horrific past I want to stand up and scream at the top of my lungs. I want to find this person who did this, track them down and do to them what they have done to this person. But that is my work. That is my story. That is how I found myself with these men. I began to name the unnamable and say the unspeakable. That is the history of my silence.
But when I quell my own need for revenge or justice I can step back into the hidden & protected language this man is offering up to me and to others. It is in those blessed holy moments that something beyond the group emerges. Sometimes the story has been carried for generations as in the case of those who have experienced racism & genocide. To hear the names men have been called from nigger to chink to yellow man breaks your heart. When it is offered up in true vulnerability it becomes too sacred to ignore. You must embrace any part of that sin that might be yours and silently repent to the brother to remain present and clean of soul. To detach yourself and your own behavior from this man’s story is to assume he is not a part of you. We often say, “Your work is my work.” And indeed this is true. For another man to continue articulating the unsayable, I must take responsibility for his pain be it personal, corporate, or even out of complacency. Justice is not an abstract ethic but my responsibility to protect the other from abuse, sin, greed, or lack.
There are occasions where a man’s past and suffering is so repugnant that speechlessness is an act of properly naming the offense. In these moments there are no words to offer up to the suffering of another. Words can often be explanations for the sake of the “talker.” In light of what is being spoken, often for the first time, these expressions can make the story small and inconsequential. When the weight of grief and torture are unimaginable, all the men can do is bear witness to its enormity and cruelty by weeping. Weeping as a family. I have seen grown men fall to their knees and weep and wail for another. This was the only response one could have to such unspeakable atrocities done to people. To hear them is to see redemption in a new light. To hear them is to see evil as more than a concept or some devil in some red suit. You begin to see our own role in the passing on of great hurt and pain. I can become a part of great hurt in another’s life. I can become as well a healing voice with protection an comfort. I choose either way. This is a frightening truth. I have in my own heart such power. The more I name my own brokenness the more I can stand beside those who are yet to name theirs and do so as a sacred calling.
This naming, of course, is easier said than done. For some, the darkness is just that. To bring something from another realm is to feel once again the same violence, abandonment, or injustice which formed or informed so much of their lives. The calling up of those darkened events long forgotten or submerged is indeed the loosing of strongholds. It is the unraveling of years and yes, generations of thinking, acting, and naming.
In the case of severe trauma, be it physical, sexual, or emotional violence, transporting these shadowy and threatening remembrances is all but horrific. On some level, it is to live them all over again. For this reason many will never go to these places. They will instead hideaway the suffering of the soul, deny its reflexive blindness and wander through life half full or nearly empty.
It is said that we cannot be conscious of what we are unconscious. So as good as we would desire to be, something is always in collusion. Something is always complicitous in our acting out, our sin, our projections of pain on others. But we cannot find the root. We do not see the cause. For many that cause is hidden from our memory to such an extent that even when ask we may draw a blank. This blank does not negate the realty of our experience. It merely reinforces the power of denial to shut away the remembrance of painful times. Some of these experiences are so painful we turn to anxiety relief through denial, repression, suppression, or addiction.
It’s Hidden in the Words
What is the quality of knowing that is hidden in our speech? What can be discerned about a person in what they say and more importantly, what they don’t say? I am a victim. There I said. I loathe that word. I even loathe that posture as I interpret it in the lives of others. For when I encounter a real victim, a deep calls to deep. Just their carriage and pose can trigger rage in me. It can take me to me knees. Just the look in their eyes can cause my breathing to get shallow, my superficial happiness to crash and my head to fill with venomous fatal ruminations that scatter my presence to the wind. In an emotional sense, I leave the room & hide. That is the power of converging silent stories. This is the part of me that reminds me of how weak I was back when my story first began. This is why alcoholics can pick each other out in stadium. The deeper the wound the deeper the frequency of the unspeakable cry. This cry is only heard by another who is feeling or has felt that depth of pain. Many of us go through terrible anguish as children. It always marks us on some level. Who can understand the resilience of one and the seeming fragile shatteredness of another or the violent rage of another that takes their pain and compounds it on countless others?
Therapist Annie Rogers, who worked many years as a staff psychologist at a mental ward working with teenagers, remarks as to the uncanny manner in which the body and language are in collusion. “When all traces of history have been erased and the body itself is inscribed with an unknown language, how does a child begin to speak? How is it possible to listen so that that child comes to know something vital, and speaking freely becomes possible, so that living inside one’s own body is no longer a nightmare?”
I am convinced we are all experts on our lives. If we can only find a place where people really listen, we can discover a healing not privy to our souls otherwise. Why? Only those who have listened to the unspeakable can hear the unsayable. As Parker Palmer says in A Hidden Wholeness, circles of trust are needed to coax the soul from its tender hiding. A group, be they Christian or therapeutic, cannot shout for the soul to come out. So much of our dialogue is the dialect of listening and practiced silence. So few of us can wait for the soul to check its territory and borders for safety and protection. We are so trained to offer answers we often give the wrong answer at the wrong time. How many Christians have spent years of their lives living the answer to a question that was that of another? Are not most books a configuration of a shadowed projection we writers superimpose on humanity? In our minds we believe the world needs one more book, one more explanation, one more piece of insight.