We are a culture of interpretation. Increasingly we are influenced by “spin,” the interpretation of reality in terms of specific kinds of meanings. People who are facile with language and explanation can convince us about what things “really mean” simply by being good at using words. We tend to believe what people say, even sometimes not noticing what they do; we tend to overvalue verbal relating and undervalue other kinds of relating. Such as actions. Or silence. Or support of various kinds.
Especially in relationships that matter, we become happy or sad or angry or bereft based on what a person says, even though we know that people’s feelings and actions are unpredictable and change over time. On top of that, we forget what we know about that person, what has transpired over the course of the relationship, and what we ourselves think, feel, or believe. And, in a moment of thoughtless talk, we create distance and isolation.
For example, I was talking with a young man about his wife, who tends to argue with him. He becomes exasperated with her and comes home late or watches television to avoid her. But as he is telling me about their relationship, he begins to describe the many ways she cares for him, including cooking for him, worrying about his health, pushing him to ask his boss for a promotion, and asking him about his day. He continues to describe how she actually behaves in the relationship with him and as he does, he starts to realize even her most annoying kinds of nagging are really only about trying to get him to take better care of himself. He puts together the picture of how she inhabits the relationship, and he realizes her agenda is about his well-being and not about conflict or her own needs necessarily. She may not be adept at expressing how much she cares about him, but she is solidly in his corner in her heart.
Here is another example: sometimes a person will tell me about adventures in online dating. There will be an initial flurry of emails in which each person fashions a sort of email poetry of expression, creating a rush of infatuation. The words are temporarily felt as a reality about that person. Then comes the moment of truth: The in-person meeting. It turns out the writer is nothing like he or she seemed in the words written. The illusion crumples and the relationship evaporates.
We do try to articulate our experience, and we try to share our experience with each other. But we cannot put everything into words, and we cannot take a description of reality to be equal to that reality. We listen closely to each other because one of the ways we connect is understanding the other person’s description of his or her experience. But understanding a description of an experience is not the same as understanding an experience. We need to value our verbal explanations and take them seriously while simultaneously remembering that is only part of the reality.