On Mute During Airtime

Many column inches have been filled on the subject of writer’s block but in a refreshing twist on the theme of being lost for words The Observer’s Eva Wiseman has been musing instead on how it feels to be tongue-tied. Describing the experience as ‘a physical reaction to something invisible’, she puts it down to a momentary confluence of forgetfulness, hesitation, insecurity and the ‘fear of being found out’. It’s a relief to see a professional communicator admit that she struggles with the ‘red-faced muteness’ that afflicts most of us at one time or another.

I admit that ‘tongue-tied’ is not a phrase with which I’m often associated. When I first started blogging and shared with my brother the fear that I would run out of things to say, his response was: ‘Sis, you’ve never had a problem filling a space with words’. Similarly, those present when I chair meetings frequently see me wrestle with my own tendency to run-at-the-mouth at the expense of other people’s airtime.

Yet in spite of all this I sometimes find myself involuntarily on mute.The process of articulating something heart-felt can leave me red-faced and faltering. No matter how passionate we are about our subject, no matter how much we trust the biblical promise* that even in extremis we will be given the words to say, a sudden sense of complete inadequacy can turn eloquence to ashes.

Wiseman reflects on all this embarrassment, confusion and adult shyness then inverts the problem. She rejects the solution of teaching everyone to articulate their thoughts seamlessly and without hesitation. Instead she reminds us that life is a dialogue not a TED talk: therefore ‘something is lost when only those who speak well are heard’.

If we’re overcome by muteness and embarrassing blushes it could be because what we’re trying to say is too important to be left unsaid, no matter how painful it is to find a way of saying it. And when we witness someone else struggling to express themselves it might be that what they are longing to articulate goes right to the heart of who they are and what they believe. Wiseman is right. It’s worth persevering in our speaking and our listening. Let’s not lose each other’s deepest insights because we lack the patience to listen. Nor because we give up before we’ve said what we really wanted to say.

*Matthew 10:19; Mark 13:11; Luke 12:12

Quieter and Quieter

It’s half term in our household, so this will be a briefer blog post and more top-of-the-head in style.

On Monday I spent an idyllic day at Kew Gardens. A lush, green, verdant day in the company of my lovely and lively family. On the way home, walking the short distance from the tube station to our front door, we passed a homeless man sitting on the steps outside Marks and Spencer’s.

I try always, at least, to acknowledge people who have no choice but to beg on the streets: with a greeting, a smile, or at least a meeting-of-the-eyes. Sometimes I may give them nothing else. There’s an ongoing debate within me about how, when, what and where it is most effective to give. But to meet someone’s eye seems like the minimum required by human decency.

Perhaps it was the juxtaposition between the blessings of a family day out and the loneliness and physical poverty of the man on the step. For whatever reason, my embarrassment outweighed my decency. I chose not to look that man in the eye. Or in fact to look at him properly at all.

But I reckoned without our five year old, who sees everything and processes what he sees out loud. ‘Mum,’ he said, as I pulled him hastily past, ‘There was a man there and he was asking for money because he had no money. And every time somebody gave him no money his voice got quieter and quieter, because he was SO SAD, because nobody was giving him anything he needed’.

‘His voice got quieter and quieter.’ Those words and the image they convey will stay with me for a long time. As I wonder how many voices, articulating how many basic needs, get quieter and quieter until they fade away: quite simply because nobody replies.