Words and inadequacy: pain and love

What do you see? Photo courtesy of The Guardian

I am as enamored of the inadequacy of words as I am of their power. I spew them almost constantly, as a writer, as an editor, as a person trying to communicate with other persons, sending little sparks out into the ether and receiving similar sparks in return, sparks whose meaning we assign to them.

According to this blog post, there are 96 words for love in Sanskrit and 80 in ancient Persian. I think of how carefully I weighed my syllables before saying “I love you” to the man whose key fits the hole in my heart with his name on it. I wonder, if I had 96 choices, if I’d be able to better express what’s less of a feeling and more of a state of being. Like solid. Like air.

I think of the questions we ask each other, and I wonder why we expect words for feelings that are so individual, we can’t possibly convey them. 

“How are you?”

“What’s the matter?”

“What hurts?”

We try, of course. For a time after The Italian Job came out (because I like to base life philosophies on pseudo-obscure movies from the early 2000’s; it quickly weeds out those whose pop culture sensibilities are more up-to-date than mine), I used the “fine” acronym almost exclusively. “Freaked out, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional.” Not because it described my state of mind (it did) and not because it was catchy (it wasn’t) but because I think I knew the ludicrousness of the question. Even if the asker cares, which, let’s face it, they often don’t, feeling is so individualized. It lives in a place beyond, beneath words.

Pain, also, is an experience so personal, it can hardly be described, even by masters of description. Virginia Woolf, in “Waves” said, “For pain words are lacking. There should be cries, cracks, fissures, whiteness passing over chintz covers, interference with the sense of time, of space; the sense also of extreme fixity in passing objects; and sounds very remote and then very close; flesh being gashed and blood sparting, a joint suddenly twisted – beneath all of which appears something very important, yet remote, to be just held in solitude.”

I quote those with words stronger than mine, because I can’t find my own to describe it. 

See what I mean?

On a more scientific level, the McGill Pain Scale is a study in adjectives. Reading it makes my skin twitch and tingle, thinking of all the ways a human body can be tormented, on levels we can only self-report, because no one can be inside our heads. Not friends. Not doctors. Not even ourselves, as we realize the moment we try to describe how we’re feeling. And therein lies the problem.

A friend of mine is sick with the flu, and I walked into her office this afternoon. Asked her how she was feeling. She looked at me with red-rimmed eyes, hair uncharacteristically disheveled and sniffled. 

“How do you think?”

She’s a journalist, too. She knows. Words weren’t going to cut it.

So in trying to write a blog post about something that can’t be described, I’m hit in the face with a reality that frustrates me daily. I can’t tell you how I feel. You can’t tell me, either. Because words only skim over the surface of the human experience, just a tiny part of the flesh, blood, bone, brain and spirit that encompasses each of us, I dearly hope in unequal parts. I want to gnaw my way deeper into that experience, devour the essence of those I love most, in hopes I can find some hint at who they are, what they are, at the place where words fall short.

But I can’t, no matter how many words I use.

Not even in sanskrit. 


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