Some of the most difficult disabilities for us to respond to may be difficulties with speech. When a person has trouble forming or finding words and is unable to communicate clearly, so often other people experience him or her as mentally deficient. We fail to stop and realize that the inner person is whole even if the outer person appears impaired. The inability to speak does not necessarily mean that the words are gone from a person's mind. No more than the inability to move a leg means that a person has forgotten how to walk.
My dear friend Rita has experienced a lot of this. After her strokes she could not speak for eighteen months and then when she did speak she could say words but not the words she meant to say or words that communicated meaning to the people around her. She has come a long way but she has experienced a lot of judgment in the process. Rita tells a story of walking down a street, unable to speak, obviously disabled. A woman with two children walking on the same street, looked at her and took her kids to the other side of the street so they would not encounter Rita.
What did that gesture teach the children? Rather than meeting Rita and witnessing her for who she might be, the children were encouraged to avoid being present with another human being and finding the heart and wholeness in her that were surely there.
Words are important forms of communication but they are not, by any means, the only forms of communication. Gesture, touch and deep listening are every bit as important as words. Recently I met a couple. Let's call them Arthur and Jean. They have been together a long time. Arthur had a stroke twenty years ago. After recovering many abilities, his remaining deficit is speech. Arthur makes sounds but very few words, and those he does make are disjointed and hard to recognize.
What was striking about this couple was how happy they are. Arthur, in particular, is radiant, joyful. I have rarely seen another human being so delighted with life. Though he does not make words that you and I might easily recognize, Jean understands him completely. I watched her speak for him and watched him nod joyously as she made clear what he meant. Jean has taken the time and the exquisite care to truly witness Arthur, to know him, to see him, to understand him, and to be his bridge to words. Loving him, she recognized that whether or not he could speak clearly, the words and ideas were alive in his mind.
Ordinarily we are not faced with a challenge as great as Arthur's or Rita's, but we are human and our communication is not always what we hope it will be. How often have I tried to say something and not gotten it across? I have lost count. We try to be skillful, but we so often don't succeed. Perhaps we don't succeed because we fail to look for the heart and wholeness in one another, to take the time to slow down and truly be curious about who is next to us. Who are they? What moves them? This is witnessing. This is not verbal bantering, learning to make a space for someone else's words in the midst of the back and forth of conversation. Most of us can do that well enough.
Witnessing is different. Perhaps the secret to it is, after all, communicating without using words, at least for a while. Can we truly witness another person if we don't take the time to pause for a moment, and simply look? What can we see? Subtle changes of expression, skin color, tension, posture, movement? What can we hear? The sound of another person's breathing. Is it fast? Is it slow? Is it smooth? What happens if we touch his or her hand (assuming we have permission to do this)? Is his or her skin warm or cold? Is she relaxed? Is he reluctant to be touched? There is so much we can learn when we take the time and open our hearts to one another. Taking the time and the opportunity to witness another person is a gift to the person witnessed and to ourselves. Why not give it?