When Words Fail — In or Out of Therapy

I recently reread All Quiet on the Western Front in a class I take. The group consists of bright, well-read folks. Thoughtful to a fault.

I say that because, to me, the better you are with words, the more likely you will try to use them to explain experiences beyond description. Yet psychotherapy is about the fullness and meaning of those incidents and one person’s effort to convey them to another.

Even the name of the novel we completed shows how communication can fail. The translation from the German is wrong.

Erich Maria Remarque entitled this tale of World War I awfulness, Nichts Neu im Westen. I grasp enough Deutsch to tell you it means, Nothing New in the West.

“Nothing new” — just a few more deaths, more pointless battles over a space of — say — one hundred yards, traded between sides, over and again.

But what I’ve written here is insufficient and that is my point. The meat of the book, as moving as it is, attempts to describe trench warfare, death piled on meaningless death; heroism and stupidity and the loss of hope. Because I read “All Quiet,” I might now know something about war, but I do not know war.

In the seminar we struggled to understand. My noncombatant friends and I squandered many words attempting to think through something having little to do with thought. We were all touched by the story, sure. This wasn’t enough.

A wartime example might help, though still fail to achieve understanding. My wife’s father manned a supply truck during WWII. His partner in the task shared the job of transporting needed goods — military hardware, food, and other necessaries — to the front. They spent over a year side-by-side and became best friends.

On a day no different than hundreds of others, talking and laughing and complaining and telling stories as they always did, a sniper’s bullet killed Tom Henek’s buddy. Covered with the blood of a man he loved, the soldier who would sire my wife drove on.

Those are the facts. The single survivor — the man who relived the murder in post-traumatic dreams — himself died long ago. No one is present to add or subtract from the description. We civilians lack the conceptual and affective adequacy to approach what the lived-experience was like, only analogues from our own terrors and near-misses.

A movie might help, perhaps the opening of Saving Private Ryan, however much falling short.

What can we impart of joy? The birth of a child, sex, whatever is your happiest memory? Those without children won’t comprehend. The solitary who never made love “in love” can’t enter the realm of the incommunicable. Poor creatures holding only gray memories of a rocky life might find their best day difficult to recall as a pulsing, radiant thing.

Yet this is what therapists do: try to understand those with a different history from their own.

Healers can’t get inside of you. They listen to the inflections, depend on the definitions they hope you share. Add your eyes, the ache in your voice, and body language. No wonder you are frustrated at times. No wonder they are frustrated at times. Nor am I including the secrets you’ve not told or the knowledge of yourself you don’t possess.

There are people in our lives — if you are like me — about whom you will learn more some time after not seeing them. I’m talking of a forest and trees phenomenon. We need to be close-up to make out some things. The rest takes form at a distance. Such perception is of little use to the departed, but the one who stumbles upon a new depth of insight is enlarged in a way I also cannot describe.

Trust me — “trust me about this” — is now a phrase that might mean a bit more to you. Perhaps you won’t be quick to trust the expression anymore. Remember, too, I’m using words to communicate; words you are encouraged to rely upon less.

Asking questions of the speaker might help him explain himself to you.

Might.

We are desperate. We wish to be understood. Do you have more than a faint sense of me, precise and perceptive in detail? To most of you I am black letters against white space on a phone or computer; perhaps a recorded voice on the Internet or a photo. In any shared real life you’d witness moments of irritation, disappointment, weariness, self-assertion, laughter and more.

No one knows the entirety of another. I haven’t told you everything, nor admitted to myself the totality of who I am.

Perhaps my tendency to answer questions truthfully is too rare a quality. Those who desire tender acceptance have no chance without frankness. Thus, I try to be frank.

Here is another consideration. Counselors often withhold the truths for which they believe their client is unprepared. Whether we are counselors or not, we are a combination of what we say and the matters we consign to silence. Listeners make assumptions about the latter with no definite idea of the unseen iceberg below the other’s visible self-presentation.

We enter relationships and conversations as if all of us — every one — wore a hair piece. An observer might detect it, but still does not perceive what is underneath.

Science fiction of the Star Trek universe offers a non-conversational way of fathoming the other: the Vulcan mind meld. Here is a completeness of intimacy to the most terrifying degree imaginable: sharing every thought, every feeling, every recollection. Imagine the holder of a pitcher pouring them into you.

I learned the unreliability of language at home. I had one honest parent and another who couldn’t bear too much truth. Therein resided the equivalent of a university education. My nature was more attuned to the former.

Forty-years after his return from the European zone of combat, I asked my dad what he recalled of his reunion with my mom. A first phone call from New York stood out. The man I loved wept reliving the moment.

Did I understand? Well, I partook of his retelling, and that was more than sufficient. If we are sympathetic witnesses to such inwardness, the two of us become closer. Patients and doctors, parents and children, friends and lovers. We don’t need to fathom everything.

I keep a scrapbook of invisible moments, often silent — a look or a touch, a smile or a tear.

The possibility of knowing sometimes depends upon the unsayable.

The first painting is called City Landscape — 1955,  by Joan Mitchell.  It is followed by Georgia O’Keefe’s White Shell with Red. Both come from the Art Institute of Chicago.

13 thoughts on “When Words Fail — In or Out of Therapy

  1. I love the Spock reference and character – which is one of my faves, apart from Data! One thing you said that stood out, over all the insightful things you had said, is this: “No one knows the entirety of another.” This got me thinking: I wonder if we truly know ourselves let alone another. To keep things simple, I think that we all want to be understood in some way. I also think that we forget to understand ourselves enough to convey that which we want others to understand about us – all while being mindful about understanding others’ as well. I know I’m guilty of this – and of overthinking. I forget the tenets of “less is more” sometimes, and/or the notion of saying what is most important first (without details), and if others are interested in details, they’d ask. One final thought: It seems like therapists absorb so much of what their clients share (verbally and nonverbally), and it sounds like there is an incredible amount of responsibility for clinicians to take what has been absorbed and translate that into what their clients need. That’s an amazing skill (and heart), Dr. S! Although it would be interesting to understand a person from the perspective of what hasn’t been shared or expressed – or even to understand the self in that way, too.

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    • A agree with much of what you’ve said, Multinomial. We all know some things about ourselves, but we are too close and too “inside” to get a perspective from multiple outside viewpoints and THEN put them together with what we know from inside. We are always dealing with approximations, even the most insightful of us. The same principles apply in trying to understand someone else, but with roles reversed.

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  2. Thank you for this thoughtful article, Dr. Stein. (Well, yours are ALL thoughtful, but this one particularly touches me.) My parents and grandparents lived through WWII in Europe, my parents-in-law served in the British air force…. so I’ve heard and thought a lot about the experiences of war, and have sometimes sought out films to help me understand… but I realize that I can’t really come all that close.

    Empathy — “feeling with” — is a word and concept that’s used more and more often in the world of counselling. I’ve often thought about the LIMITS of empathy, which is something that isn’t much talked about (or, it seems to me, acknowledged) in counselling circles. You’ve described these limits so well.

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    • Thank you, Mary Ann. In trying to understand the experience of our parents and grandparents, we are — of course — also allowing ourselves the potential of self-understanding; both by increasing the knowledge of the family influences on our growth and the possibility of recognizing how we might be repeating paths taken by our parents and grandparents. As to empathy, I’ve written that I think the therapist must limit the amount of empathy he has for his client. If he feels the most painful emotions of the patient as if they were his own, he risks losing the capacity to do much of his job; and, indeed, to prevent his own collapse within and outside the session. Sympathy, in such instances, is better for all concerned.

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  3. “Counselors often withhold the truths for which they believe their client is unprepared. Whether we are counselors or not, we are a combination of what we say and the matters we consign to silence. Listeners make assumptions about the latter with no definite idea of the unseen iceberg below the other’s visible self-presentation.”

    Beautifully put and very true for both parties, not just the counselor. Many unspoken words are intuited by each. Feelings that may be impossible to articulate, are nonetheless understood, even when words fail. As your ending line points out, “The possibility of knowing sometimes depends upon the unsayable.”

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    • “Very true for both parties, not just the counselor. Many unspoken words are intuited by each. Feelings that may be impossible to articulate, are nonetheless understood, even when words fail.” Well said. Thank you, Brewdun.

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  4. A touching and enriching post, Dr. Stein.

    “Yet this is what therapists do: try to understand those with a different history from their own.”
    ~ As an individual walking among others with different stories, I try to connect with what we share in common as human beings.

    “No one knows the entirety of another. I haven’t told you everything, nor admitted to myself the totality of who I am.”
    ~ So true. I am yet to discover the totality of who I am, much less that of the other.

    “I keep a scrapbook of invisible moments, often silent — a look or a touch, a smile or a tear. // The possibility of knowing sometimes depends upon the unsayable.”
    ~ So beautiful in its rendering ❤ As human beings, we share far more in common than our outward differences would suggest. It brings to mind the documentary film, HUMAN.

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  5. What you wrote: “My wife’s father manned a supply truck during WWII. His partner in the task shared the job of transporting needed goods — military hardware, food, and other necessaries — to the front. They spent over a year side-by-side and became best friends.

    “On a day no different than hundreds of others, talking and laughing and complaining and telling stories as they always did, a sniper’s bullet killed Tom Henek’s buddy. Covered with the blood of a man he loved, the soldier who would sire my wife drove on.

    “Those are the facts. The single survivor — the man who relived the murder in post-traumatic dreams — himself died long ago. No one is present to add or subtract from the description. We civilians lack the conceptual and affective adequacy to approach what the lived-experience was like, only analogues from our own terrors and near-misses.”

    Dr. S., I’m so sorry for your and your wife’s loss – at least vicariously for you. The point about your heart, Dr. S., is that you strive to understand – even if we do not know all about ourselves or others. Not too many people would even take that challenge, but you do, and you have, and many have been blessed from having known you, worked with you, worked for you, or received clinical care from you! I’m sure of it – even though all I know about you are the writings online and my own presumptions about who you are. But your words speak truth and come from your heart, and no matter where we fall short in understanding, all we have is our heart’s intent and our actions.

    The fact that we can hear this story from you means that you allow their voices and spirits to be heard, even if they are no longer alive on earth. Their own legacies of their lives – at least a snapshot of it – lingers through the stories we tell. As I vaguely understand Jewish culture and religion (from some of my family members and from attending one religion course about 5 years ago), telling story in such venues brings people together – and inspires hope – even when hope seems impossible. With the written word, we can read those stories in depth and spend time meditating about its meaning. With movies, we can visualize, and with songs we can hear and feel emotions about thoughts that only makes sense in poetry and musical tunes.

    Regardless of whom we’ve let down by our unspoken (assumed) or spoken (direct) expectations, we have hearts that care to understand ourselves and others – that has to count for something. No one is perfect; we’re only human; our mind is only capable of handling so much before it needs a break. I think we’d go crazy if we knew everything about ourselves and each other.

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    • Yes, as your last line indicates, complete self-knowledge might break some to pieces. My wife has a favorite punishment for the worst of us: one moment of self-awareness! As to the rest you’ve said here, thank you for your lovely and loving sentiments.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You are very welcome! Yup, gotta love the punishment lol.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. My great grandfather fought in WWII and you actually have a similar voice/narritave to him. he was always so insightful and wise. Thank you so much for sharing.

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