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Lost for Words

by Beata Bishop(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 126 - August 2006

A small news item that caught my eye recently saddened me just as much as some of the bigger and gorier stories of the day. Many parents, it claimed, don't talk to their young children at all, so that when the small ones first arrive at school, they are barely able to speak. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that this kind of neglect should count as child abuse, starvation of a non-physical kind, for it deprives the victims of what is nourishment for the mind and heart, namely communication, inclusion, relating and sharing. And all this happens at the most critical time of a child's development, in the first few years of life when the world is huge and new and full of wonderful mysteries that need exploring and naming. If a child's natural curiosity and innumerable questions are met with silence, how on earth will it be able to communicate with anyone later in life?

There's more to that inability than a lack of verbal skills, although that's bad enough: this is supposed to be the Age of Information, in which one can't prosper without a good command of language. But let's go beyond that. 'Communication' comes from the Latin communicare, which means to share or hold in common. And it's precisely the ability to communicate, i.e. to share ideas, views (even if they clash) and feelings verbally that makes us significantly human. Of course, other life forms also communicate, but even the most intelligent chimpanzee can't learn more than the most rudimentary vocabulary, which isn't speech as such. Language is one of the few glories we humans can claim: it has produced the masterpieces of world literature, and even though since that unfortunate event at the Tower of Babel we babble but in innumerable languages, words still remain our best common currency.

Provided of course that we use them properly, and that, next to being able to talk, we also know how to listen – and to hear what the other side is saying. Listening and hearing aren't the same thing. Just observe two angry people shouting at each other, each one bellowing his or her own truth, but not hearing a word of the opposite blast. Exactly the same happens between large groups, often with lethal consequences. And until humankind as a whole learns to listen and understand conflicting views instead of shifting into battle mood, there will be no peace on earth.

In my work as a psychotherapist I often find that clients' relationship problems boil down to nothing worse than poor communication. Women, except the strident battleaxe types (who don't normally come into therapy), tend to keep quiet about their difficulties for a long time, until the repressed emotions erupt like a volcano. Why not speak up in time, reasonably and clearly? "Didn't want to rock the boat" is a frequent excuse, but how sturdy is a boat that can't take a slight rocking? "Thought the problem would resolve itself," or "If he loved me, he'd know what's wrong" are other equally unconvincing excuses. Men, on the whole, are less reluctant to rock the boat; but they are not used to thinking, let alone talking, about their feelings – those seem to be a foreign land, best left alone, best left to the women (who, sadly, don't appreciate the strong silent kinds of men).

"In our family we never talk about anything that really matters" is the saddest statement I ever hear from clients embroiled in some deep kinship conflict. The longer it's allowed to simmer below the surface, the harder it is to deal with. Yet sometimes a touch of openness can resolve the problem in a few minutes, as it did in the case of two sisters who hadn't spoken for some twenty years, until they met at a favourite aunt's funeral. Afterwards they went to a café and started to talk. "I've always envied you," said one sister, "because you are a successful career woman and you travel all over the world and meet exciting people, and I'm just a boring housewife." "And I've always envied you," said the other sister, "because you have a husband and three fine kids and a good secure home base, and that's what I really wanted for myself and shall never have." That was all it took, plus a few discreet tears on both sides, to sweep away half a lifetime of mutual envy and seething resentment.

So don't let's be lost for words when communication is needed, and let's communicate in time, not wait for a funeral to break an unnecessary silence.


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About Beata Bishop

Beata Bishop is a writer, lecturer and psychotherapist in private practice, working along Jungian and transpersonal lines. Her special interests include the role of the spiritual dimension in all kinds of healing, and the body-mind link in sickness and health. Her book, A Time to Heal (First Stone Publishing, 2010), describes her journey from life-threatening cancer to robust health using an unorthodox nutritional therapy. She can be contacted on e-mail:

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