When Words Fail

My mom had just picked me up for a much needed mother-daughter day at the ballet. Out of my own fault, we had arrived later than expected, and parking was regrettably a struggle. I watched as my mom suffered the stress of trying to find a spot, not wanting to miss the beginning (of what was supposed to be) our special day. I instantaneously felt bad when I saw the taint this had put on our day.  Yet my mom didn’t want me to miss the ballet, so she dropped me off at the front doors. Settling into my seat, I was pulling out my phone every minute or so, hoping she would walk through the door. These seats were front row, and the only empty spot was where my mother was supposed to sit.

 

Photo by Kilyan Sockalingum

 

On my left was a young mother and daughter eagerly waiting for the show to start. In that moment I thought that could’ve been my mom and me. Instead, all I had created for myself was an emptiness beside me. The space to my right revealed a small family, and in my immediate periphery was a woman and a young child. This woman was hoarsely coughing, and I hoped that she wouldn’t get my mom sick, once she finally arrived. I peered at the clock on my phone once more. As the introductory music kicked in, I became fidgety as the guilt grew stronger. “C’mon mom, c’mon,” I thought. But, this time when I turned around, I saw her being escorted toward me. I let out a great exhale as she settled into her seat, “I am sorry I did this,” I told her. Just as she sat down, the curtain went up.

 

Photo by Rob Laughter

 

The first half of the ballet was wonderfully choreographed, and was surprisingly hilarious. We chatted at intermission about the costumes, the characters, the dances and what we would change. It was almost perfect, if not for the distractions of those beside us, and a few minor details. After my mom and I finished chatting about our critiques of the ballet, I moved onto filling her in of my night prior. I told her how my brother and I, along with one of his friends and my boyfriend, played a candlelit mystery game, how my brother had created an atmosphere with candles and eerie music. I told her the hilarious story of how I sizzled my eyelashes trying to sniff a scented candle and how that had the potential to be a disaster.

 

Photo by Michael Afonso

 

I told her how I could have easily become fixated on such a small detail — and how I was for a time after it happened – until the woman beside us coughed once more and diverted my attention. She had pulled out a Kleenex, and I watched her as she brought it up to her face. I watched as she blinked, but now something had become blatantly obvious. She herself had no eyelashes. And suddenly, my heart plummeted into my stomach. After I took the time to really, really look at her I saw the hurt in her eyes, I saw that the hair I had been admiring earlier was a wig, and the coughs were more than the common cold. I had just been going on about myself, in my own little world, and I was blind to the bigger picture. I admired her for being here. No longer did her coughing bug me: in that moment I was reminded of her humanity — of all our humanity.

 

Photo by Vlah Dumitru

 

There was nothing more that I wanted than to comfort her, but what could I even say? I had been so involved in my conversation with my mom that I hadn’t taken in my surroundings. But, to some degree, that’s what we all do every day in our lives. We’re blind to what is around us. And we enact it every time we ask someone how they are doing and we expect them to say they are fine. It’s when we blame people for driving fast on the roads, not knowing why and where they are going. It’s when we look down on others for being less privileged without knowing the extent of their struggle. This is something we do every day. We do this when we forget how diverse and complex the human life is. It’s what we do when we take for granted the people who are around us, those we may not know very well, or the strangers we sit beside on the bus who are sniffling and crying. It’s when we look away at that homeless person on the street, it’s when we go into the bathroom and see a girl crying and wiping off her mascara.

 

Photo by Kevin Laminto

 

But, we do nothing. We don’t step in because we don’t know what to say. It’s in that moment we recognize a greater vulnerability in that person, and still we say nothing. Why? It’s because I realized that words fail us. There is never a way to know what to say to someone who is struggling. What words are we able to choose that can encapsulate the heaviness of the burdens they carry? And as someone who relies on words, who is in love with the English language, this moment made me realize: it is flawed. I realized that even words can’t fix everything. No scenario I speak into existence can fix a bridge that is broken, heal a wound that is bleeding, or cure an illness that is beyond my control. This was something I found deeply troubling. As I stood idle by, all I could do was feel empathy, to share in the crying of someone else’s tears.

 

So, we must fall into the blind faith that we were put on this world to love, to have relationships and stand by those in the good times and the bad. To not succumb to the urge to forego our capacity to support others in our pursuit to solve problems in empty phrases. Having the gift of words means nothing if we can’t comfort others and show them love. We need to provide each other with the reassurance of unfailing love in the midst of ever-failing words and promises because, “Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:8). This constant yearning for genuine human connection must give us the childlike optimism to hope. But, hope without love is hopeless, and faith without love is faithless. Love is the foundation which strengthens us all. Love gives us the capacity to support and strengthen. Love is never wavering, and it is this love that binds and grounds us all. “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13).