Another Word, Another Blunder: Speaking as a Process of Breaking and Recreation

Much of my power in this life is derived from my ability to communicate—to listen to others and to speak in the many languages (not just verbal, but visual, emotional, kinetic) that we share in. I know that. People tell me so often.

Lately, perhaps because of anxiety, perhaps because of exhaustion, or perhaps because some strange change of direction is at work in my heart for which I don’t yet know the destination, I have wanted to speak less, to share less, to withdraw and to protect myself from the myriad risks of being known. In some ways, as the more reserved, more aloof elements of my personality reassert themselves as primary characteristics, I can’t help but wonder if this is some kind of trauma response to my own personality. I wonder if it’s fear that makes me want to draw the metaphorical curtains of my life closed, or something else.

When I am feeling like this, I often find myself wandering back to the writings of Yiyun Li—who is one of favorite authors, and who, despite her matter-of-fact approach to describing life, its joys and its myriad tragedies, is infamously tortured to the point that when people aren’t discussing her writing, they’re often discussing her myriad failed suicide attempts, her hospitalizations, and the handful suicides that have surrounded her—which some believe may have been and continue to be formative to her. I think about her New Yorker essay, “To Speak is to Blunder”, where she discusses her choice to renounce her birth language when she immigrated from China to America, and thus left herself behind permanently for the first time, taking on a new form when she arrived here. 

I think I read her work so often because I find myself coming to different conclusions despite having a lot in common with her often resolute way of thinking. She puts despair and acceptance into words that illustrate things I think I’ve felt beautifully, but where she sees a fatal conclusion, I usually see hope. Where she seems to see a terminating fate, I usually see a break in the path—a pivot point toward a new evolution.

I make a habit of seeing a counselor somewhat regularly to discuss the goings-on of my life. I think it’s something that everyone should do if they can, and though I’ve never quite gotten beyond the polite niceties of working on surface-level challenges and trying to find a non-pharmaceutical solution to the sleeplessness that has plagued me for maybe three years (I suspect that turning to medication would be my undoing; knowing the mechanisms of my mind as I do, introducing a new element to my brain chemistry in this specific way is a risk that I am not willing to take). Before each appointment, you are asked: “Do you ever think about hurting yourself? Do you ever think about suicide?”

“No,” I indicate. I never do. Self-destruction in that very final way feels so utterly antithetical to my lifetime process of mindful self-creation that I am surprised by how viscerally opposed to the very idea of it I am each time that I’m asked.

But sometimes I wish they asked another question. Maybe, “Do you ever want to take a break from being you?”

“Do you ever feel like the specific elements that come together to make yourself are burdensome?”

“Do you wish you could un-create the history that keeps you up at night? That makes it feel so impossible to simply talk to other people about what you need from them—or to know what that is at all?”

Because then I might be able to answer, “Sometimes. But.”

The rub is that, even in these periods where I don’t know what to say—or rather, feel that I need to observe the part of myself that encourages silence, there is this force in me that demands to be heard, demands to connect even when I feel wounded by my history of connections and skittish at the thought of revealing that there might be something more to me than the litany of characters that people project on to my person because of the way that I look, speak, and comport myself physically.

I think about the safety and power I would probably enjoy if I was who people so often presume me to be and not something clumsier, still learning, and deeply fragile in ways that always seem to disappoint people when they learn that—contrary to whatever they’ve made up—I can be hurt, and that even as I deal with others with a learned patience and decency that they feel I “should not have to give”, I lose and gain something from this act of sharing. I don’t just project and shout—I don’t just declare without skin in the game—I give a piece of myself to every connection and conversation, and can feel that little spark of life live on in a way that I oftentimes fantasize about not being conscious of.

But, if to speak is to inevitably walk oneself into a blunder, then I think that I am clumsier than most and acutely aware of it. I am not afraid of that clumsiness—I am eager to learn from my errors and from my shame, both of which always seem to sharpen me over time, and make me a better, more compassionate communicator. I am oftentimes earnest about what I think and feel to a fault; I can either tell too much of the truth or say nothing at all, and both choices come at a tremendous cost.

So often I feel like a clueless child, more so than most of my peers. I wish I could shut up for good some times, and learn to mind only the business right beneath my nose. I can’t, though, because my foolishness is always reaching toward some catalyzing element that brings it into contact with hope. I realize that the rug will be pulled from beneath my feet over and over again, and I accept that part without fear. I know it would be easier in some ways if I could renounce that original, opinionated, often mischievous and vocal self that always manages to claw its way to the surface—but despite myself, my sensibility is weaker than my inherent will to keep asking questions, to agitate, to joke, to share in the exchange of ideas and feelings. I could not close up shop if I wanted to.

I think about the parable of the glass cannon. It emits a powerful charge, yes, but it breaks every time. So do I. And I am enamored by the process of reassembly, with detritus new and old.

If it is true that to speak is to blunder, then, despite my great desire to quit tripping, to stop breaking things and crashing into walls, the fact is that I cannot hold myself back from indulging in the thrill of exploring the aftermath of the crashes. I can’t stop pointing out new scars and bruises and saying, “And here is what I learned from that.”

Maybe if I thought of myself as a teacher or, more even more usefully, as a writer, this might be romantic. I don’t, though. I am, instead, a clumsy-minded person, perpetually thinking aloud.

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