Words Fail


Photo by Kate Henley Long

Photo by Kate Henley Long

By: Kate Henley Averett


Answer the following questions as quickly as possible, without giving it too much thought. #1: What one word best describes your relationship with your partner?

The question made me sigh. Not because I couldn’t come up with a quick answer; in fact, the answer came to me right away. Sort of. But my answer wasn’t a word. It was more of a feeling – not the emotion kind, but an actual physical feeling. Disregarding the rules, I tried to explain this feeling – you know, the way your body feels when you’re curled up together, right before sleep and your entire self relaxes for the first time all day, and it’s something like safety or security or love or comfort or trust, and all of these at once but kind of more than that too – but as close as I came, it still wasn’t quite it. And anyway, it was way more than one word.

What is it with our insistence on using words? I know that’s a funny question coming from a writer. I love words for their ability to connect people, for how they allow us to be heard and challenged and disagreed with, but they have their shortcomings, too. There are some things, often our deepest and most profound truths, that we know in our bodies or in our souls, that lose a measure of their power when we constrict them into the medium of language. It’s why, for the longest time, I almost exclusively preferred the medium of choreography for expression. Instead of having to use insufficient words to explain very physical experiences such as anxiety, fear, and stress, I could make movements that felt this same way, and in teaching these movements to others, they could know, without me having to explain it to them, what this thing feels like to me.

I have a similar experience when asked to talk about my faith or my spirituality. I do my best with words, describing the experience of singing and praying with a small community of people at the end of a long day of hanging siding and shingling a roof, expounding on Rerum Novarum or Economic Justice for All, struggling to express the rawness of the mystical body of Christ and what it feels like to really try to feel other people’s pain as your own, usually babbling on about Dorothy Day to a point that it probably sounds idolatrous. But it’s never sufficient. Even (especially?) the words “Catholic” and “Christian” fail to nail down with any accuracy that feeling at my core, not just of my soul but the actual tangible experience in my body, that is my spirituality.

I know that we need language, and as I’m coming to love writing, I appreciate language’s power more and more. But exercises like the one above – being asked to describe something, anything of importance, in just one word – still frustrate me to no end. So when we talk and write about our spirituality, let’s not forget to dance it, paint it, sing it, sculpt it, and play it, too.

Kate Henley Averett is not so good at describing herself.


One Response

  1. This is lovely! I like your words and your non-verbal expressions. 🙂

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