We can't communicate, and it's killing us
When I was about five years old, my grandfather had several strokes. One of those resulted in aphasia, a disease that affects one’s ability to speak or understand words. When I would visit him in his two-story row home in South Philadelphia, I would find him sitting in the corner of his sofa with a walking cane by his side. Once, he summoned me to sit next to him, his body twitching and shaking as he attempted to reach for his wallet on the adjacent sofa table. His mouth opened, and I leaned in as the sounds of a broken muffler emerged from his mouth—sentences and syllables that I tried to make sense of but couldn’t. Due to his shaking, he dropped the wallet, and I watched as his forehead grew red, his eyes glazed over, and he became so frustrated that he slammed his cane on the floor.
I jumped to retrieve his wallet and open it for him. His red-lined forehead turned a soft peach, and he pointed to a ream of photos in a plastic sheath at the wallet’s fold. His shoulders dropped and his knuckle slammed down on a picture of him standing side by side with Vincent Price. Then, a series of seal-like sounds emerged from him. I realized he was trying to tell me the story behind the photo. I nodded and smiled, and when he felt that I had seen him, he moved his finger to the wallet’s slot and pulled out the edge of a dollar bill he wanted to give me.
In his heyday, my grandfather was a boxer turned cut-man for Heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. According to my father, Liston wouldn’t let any other white man touch him, but he respected my grandfather. They broke bread many times.
I never got to hear that story, or the one about Vincent Price, or the countless others my grandfather must have had locked inside his mind.
According to the National Aphasia Association, aphasia affects a person’s ability to process language, but it does not affect intelligence. It’s also more common than many people think. The famous essayist H.L. Mencken suffered a stroke in 1948 and was no longer able to read or write. He could speak, but only with great difficulty. Following this, he sometimes referred to himself in the past tense, as if he were already dead.
Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby points out that ever since he was a kid he suffered from severe migraines, which can also cause transient aphasia. Once during a live TV interview, Jacoby kept pronouncing “journalist” as “nerjalsit.”
Recently, we learned that actor Bruce Willis has aphasia, which has forced him to step away from his career.
The Waltons star Ellen Corby suffered from aphasia after a stroke in 1976. Her career almost ended as a result.
For artists, words and language are as essential as breathing. What happens when that disappears? What is language but a chance to explore the content of one’s life in all its horror and ecstasy? How can people without access to words and language partake in that same exploration?
And what happens when we intentionally give up that communication and exploration?
The ability to express our thoughts and connect with others through words is a precious commodity that could disappear at a moment’s notice in any one of us. I’ve felt it disappear in myself temporarily—not because of aphasia, but because of fear. Fear that my thoughts aren’t welcome. Fear that I will be shunned or shamed for thinking or saying the wrong things. I see that fear in my partner’s eyes as soon as I open my mouth when we are out with friends. It happens when someone brings up something they’ve read on social media or heard on TV, or when someone pops in with a new pronoun. I watch my partner’s eyes shoot over, and I nod and smile politely, pushing my words deep inside.
Jonathan Haidt has written about this country’s fundamental inability to speak to one another. “Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly,” he writes. “We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another, and from the past. …Self-censorship is now a practice among many across the country.”
I believe that what Haidt is describing is a collective aphasia—one that we’ve put upon ourselves. Social media, which now drives the news cycle, has been captured by voices on the far left and far right of our politics. This normalization of extremism has created a climate where nuance and understanding are marginalized. While the moderate majority remain silent out of fear or ignorance, this collective aphasia worsens. We begin to believe that we are the only ones who see that something is amiss, but feel powerless to communicate it.
Our aphasia has left society atrophied, and we are slowly losing parts of ourselves that are intrinsic to civic engagement. When free speech becomes a “problem” on college campuses, our aphasia sets in. When people stick signs on their lawn that says science is real but still can’t define a woman, our aphasia sets in. When the signs read Black Lives Matter, and yet millions of black kids in our biggest cities are being gunned down every weekend while politicians look the other way, our aphasia sets in. When the black community is being told they are victims instead of victors, our aphasia sets in. When organizations fight discrimination with more discrimination, our aphasia sets in.
This affliction has affected all our institutions, from government and education to medicine and the arts. But we must not lose sight of the importance of using our voices to speak and search for the truth—and we are not likely to find the truth if we stay in our bubbles. Instead of keeping our heads down, we must speak up so that others who are suffering in silence can know that they are not alone. We must also find the courage to engage with people who disagree with us, not only to try to find points of common ground, but also because exposing ourselves to different perspectives is a good in and of itself. We have a duty to ourselves and to each other to speak while we can, to find common ground through difficult conversations, and to overcome our aphasia.
For writers and artists (and even pugilistic grandfathers), thoughts, words, and creative expression are the syntax of life: they are what remind us of our common humanity. The freedom to express oneself without fear is fundamental to human happiness. Each of us has a different story to tell, and each story weaves into the larger tapestry of how we understand and connect with one another as human beings. We are losing that right now—but we don’t have to.
During the last year of H.L. Mencken’s life, his friend and biographer William Manchester read to him daily. After her stroke, the writers of The Waltons turned Ellen Corby’s aphasia into a storyline, allowing her to continue working. I kept that dollar bill my grandfather gave me for the longest time, but I couldn’t quite understand why. Now, I realize it was because it symbolized his gratitude. He wanted me to know he appreciated feeling seen and heard, despite how hard it was for him to communicate. I had offered him compassion and grace as he struggled to say what he wanted to say.
As we grapple with our own collective aphasia today, we could certainly all use more of that.
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