By Ellen B. Koneck
When I first read Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation Among Young Catholics in the fall of 2017, the detail that lingered with me more than any other was the gratitude expressed by some of the young people interviewed at simply being asked to tell their stories. This sentiment has echoed for me in contexts and conversations ever since—I can’t seem to escape it. Clearly, the experience of being heard is powerful, even transformational, and the act of listening is a virtue desperately needed in our culture.
But, although good dialogue may depend in part on an inviting and safe space, a good set of questions, and a willing listener, the conversation doesn’t really start until someone takes that initial vulnerable step and decides to speak. As the recent blog post “Can We Talk?” points out: “There’s more to communication than just listening and being heard. There’s the talking part.”
That activity—indeed, that skill—of speaking articulately and from the heart, is as urgently needed as the skill of listening, but may be even harder to do well. Speaking truthfully, authentically, and without pretense, especially if the thing shared is a deeply felt concern, a raw wound, or a yet-untested idea, can be scary: What if someone misunderstands? Worse yet, what if someone understands perfectly and just doesn’t agree or care?
Programs and spaces in which people learn to articulate themselves are just as imperative (and just as rare!) in our culture of constant-but-shallow-communication. Louisa Kamps, in “Can We Talk?”, suggests the classroom as one location for practice: “More and more, students and faculty are seeking out and welcoming conversations where they can feel not only free, but encouraged to unfurl—working through difficult thoughts together with others in an unhurried way, saying things they’ve never said (or thought) before.” The parish is another such space, according to Theresa O’Keefe, a scholar expert in youth and young adult faith formation. O’Keefe emphasizes the role that adults in the parish community can play. “The maturing adolescent needs some listening adult [other than parents] with whom they can ‘try out an idea and see how it sounds in the world.’”
Speaking truthfully, authentically, and without pretense, especially if the thing shared is a deeply felt concern, a raw wound, or a yet-untested idea, can be scary: What if someone misunderstands? Worse yet, what if someone understands perfectly and just doesn’t agree or care?
The notion of ‘trying out an idea’—or as I like to say, trying it on for size, seeing how and if it fits—is one of the most profound powers of speaking. Like a sacrament, it can be efficacious: it brings about what it signifies. The ability to hear in one’s own voice a reality, a deeply felt need or urge or wound or joy, suddenly makes that thing vivid and present. I remember as a middle-school girl finally stumbling upon some frustration or hurt while processing the day’s events with my twin sister from the top bunk of our bunkbeds. She may very well have already been asleep by the time I had my “aha!” moment—but the act of speaking (even if not totally being heard . . .) was powerful for me.
I remember, too, when my brother died, and my siblings and I had to call his close friends and our extended family to tell them. I heard myself admit the reality of my brother’s death—I heard myself say the words dead, died, and suddenly that fact became more real, more raw. I couldn’t convince myself it was just a bad dream: it was in the world, the sound of my own voice floating there in the air.
It’s no surprise that speaking—accessing some deep part of ourselves, then translating those nearly ineffable feelings, memories, thoughts, or moods into words, and then sharing those words with the world—is so daunting and difficult. It’s also no surprise that opportunities for and invitations to speak from the deep well of one’s heart are so important for the health of both individuals and communities alike.
Do you have an experience when speaking taught you something about yourself? How can you invite others to speak deeply in your presence?
Ellen B. Koneck is the acquisitions, sales, and marketing manager at Anselm Academic. Her writing has appeared in America, Chicago Catholic, Commonweal, Grotto Network, and elsewhere. You can follow her on Twitter.