Preparing for the beauty of pleasant surprises

by Shannon Paul on January 19, 2009

Today is a day of reflection for a number of good reasons including the memorial celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as the day before Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration.

This morning I’ve seen a lot of links of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous I have a dream… speech, which deserves celebration, being passed around. However, these days that speech reminds me of a lesser-known yet equally powerful speech given by Toni Morrison to the Nobel committee when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.

Morrison was the first African American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. I’m confident she could teach us a lot about what it takes to be an agent of change and a proponent of injecting more humanity into official/business communication, even though I’m sure she’s never been on Twitter and has little understanding about social media in general.

Forgive me if this seems like a bit of a departure from my usual subject matter, but I’m pretty sure her voice and others like her are the reason we, as human beings, even began to think differently about communication in the first place.

I also like to think this need, this desire to connect, drove the development of technology that could facilitate what we imagined was possible with communication.

Her speech, which is really more of a lecture, is one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever heard or read. You can read or listen to the lecture in its entirety on the Nobel Foundation website.

It starts out in a frame of utter predictability:

“Once upon a time…”

Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind. Wise.

Among her people she is both the law and its transgression. The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach beyond her neighborhood to places far away; to the city where the intelligence of rural prophets is the source of much amusement.

Sound familiar?

One day the woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability: her blindness.

They stand before her, and one of them says, “Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead.”

After a bout of silence she answers:

“I don’t know”, she says. “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.”

Morrison then speculates — helps her audience along with the meaning behind the old woman’s reply:

Her answer can be taken to mean: if it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility.

For parading their power and her helplessness, the young visitors are reprimanded, told they are responsible not only for the act of mockery but also for the small bundle of life sacrificed to achieve its aims. The blind woman shifts attention away from assertions of power to the instrument through which that power is exercised.

Morrison then goes on to explore the meaning and the power and what many refer to as the death of language — she uses the bird as a metaphor for language — how it is used to hurt, soothe, protect, diminish, expound and promote.

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

She then does the unpredictable. She shifts our attention away from the old woman and focuses on the children at the woman’s door:

“Once upon a time, …” visitors ask an old woman a question. Who are they, these children? What did they make of that encounter? What did they hear in those final words: “The bird is in your hands”? A sentence that gestures towards possibility or one that drops a latch? Perhaps what the children heard was “It’s not my problem. I am old, female, black, blind. What wisdom I have now is in knowing I cannot help you…”

Suppose nothing was in their hands? Suppose the visit was only a ruse, a trick to get to be spoken to, taken seriously as they have not been before? A chance to interrupt, to violate the adult world…?

Perhaps the question meant: “Could someone tell us what is life? What is death?” No trick at all; no silliness. A straightforward question worthy of the attention of a wise one. An old one. And if the old and wise who have lived life and faced death cannot describe either, who can?

If this is the case, our wise one fails. Rather than joining them in discourse, she “keeps her secret; her good opinion of herself; her gnomic pronouncements; her art without commitment. She keeps her distance, enforces it and retreats into the singularity of isolation, in sophisticated, privileged space.”

The children ask:

“Why didn’t you reach out, touch us with your soft fingers, delay the sound bite, the lesson, until you knew who we were? Did you so despise our trick, our modus operandi you could not see that we were baffled about how to get your attention? We are young. Unripe. We have heard all our short lives that we have to be responsible. What could that possibly mean in the catastrophe this world has become…?

…Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.

Morrison illustrates through the examination of this inter-generational tale how discourse, discussion and dialog build trust and how sound bites only create distance and further misunderstanding:

You are an adult. The old one, the wise one. Stop thinking about saving your face. Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story. Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created. We will not blame you if your reach exceeds your grasp…

It’s quiet again when the children finish speaking, until the woman breaks into the silence.

“Finally”, she says, “I trust you now. I trust you with the bird that is not in your hands because you have truly caught it. Look. How lovely it is, this thing we have done – together.”

No matter your political beliefs, many people see tomorrow’s presidential inauguration as a triumph of hope over cynicism and I hope they’re right. Allowing ourselves to feel the beauty of life takes work that is too easily undone.

Aside from sharing one of my favorite things ever written, I hope we can all stop looking at life as if we already know how it ends, and instead open our eyes to the beautiful things we can learn from each other.

As usual, I’m open to hearing what you all have to say on the matter. If you think I’m off my rocker for posting this here — that it doesn’t belong and you would rather read about social media stats or how to insert FBML files into your Facebook page, let me know.

I’m figuring out how to use this space as I go, and to do that I need (and appreciate) your help. Thanks so much for indulging me.
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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

January 19, 2009 Steve Woodruff 1

You know how on iTunes, you can create mix playlists? Same with blogging. Keep it up.


January 19, 2009 Charrise McCrorey 2

Wow. Shannon, this is beautiful writing – so thoughtful and generous. Your style is warm and you’re voice is endearing. You MUST keep writing! And thanks for sharing your heart, taking a risk and being FEARLESS in your pursuit of authenticity.

You Rock.

Fearless in good company,


January 19, 2009 Jen Wilbur 3

Thanks for sharing this! Beautifully written post.


January 19, 2009 Mouthflowers 4

Shannon–Thanks so much for sharing this. Of course it belongs–social media is about communication, and that is at the heart of Morrison’s lecture. How and why and what to communicate. I’m going to print off the lecture and spend a good long time reading and pondering. I went to church on New Year’s Eve, & the pastor said it was time to throw off “spiritual laryngitis” and find our voice. Thank you for always being willing to lead the way.


January 19, 2009 Kostandinos 5

Refreshing. :)

I’m filled with hope and anxiety, but for once in a long time I’m going to trust a politician, a President, a man; Obama’s also a father and I take him at his word. His ambition was refreshing and was enough for me to want to believe. We can all take away something from that – dream big, think BIG. He may do some bad along the way, too, but no President has been flawless.

If there’s ever been a day for turning a new page, that day is tomorrow. Everyone needs to work together… black, white, yellow, purple, male, female, gay, straight… whatever. Hopefully January 20, 2009 will be the beginning of America opening its eyes; hopefully this day will begin to erase all that’s been behind our eye lids while we’ve sat back with blinders on.

My favorite quote from the Morrison passage: “The Catastrophe This World Has Become”. I think it will make a great title for a painting. :)

I realize that I’m taking away something a bit off the path from what you may have intended, but at the same time, it’s exactly what you intended. You communicated with me and made me think, just like Toni Morrison .

Way to change it up. Great post! :)


January 19, 2009 Dennis Dubay 6

Well done, Lady!


January 19, 2009 Doc Think 7

Shannon, thank you for sharing and for a lovely, thoughtful post. It’s a nice contrast to the transactional. I appreciate taking the time for mindfulness that this gave me.

Mixing is good. We are whole people.


January 19, 2009 Shannon Paul 8

You’re all very kind. This post felt good to write. I really do encourage everyone to take a look at the lecture in its entirety if you like what you read here. Toni Morrison is a gifted artist – let’s celebrate her while she’s still alive!

Steve – Glad you like this addition to my mix. :)

Charrise and Jen – Thank you for the validation. I’m glad this was a worthwhile read for you.

Mouthflowers – I’m glad you see the connection to the larger subject of communication in Morrison’s lecture. I really hope you enjoy her speech in its entirety. Please let me know what you think. :)

Kostandinos – I love where your thinking is with this. As a nation, I believe, you’re right to notice that we put ourselves out on a limb. We’re willing to extend ourselves beyond the usual stuff. What comes next is even more important than what led us to embrace hopeful change. Please will you show me the painting — or at last a picture of it when it’s completed? :)

Dennis – Thanks — I’m glad you enjoy my non-hockey stuff, too. :)


January 19, 2009 Brandon Cox 9

The best kind of writing and speaking is off-the-cuff, from-the-hip, and heart-to-heart. Write what’s on your heart with passion and it will always be great. Loved your thoughts – very inspiring.


January 20, 2009 Jean B. 10

Shannon, I can’t think of many more touching, insightful, or poetic things you could have written about at this time, in this place, in this space. The fact that you ask if it’s right is proof that it is, at least for you. Thank you for reminding us of Toni Morrison’s great talent. And thank you for writing with honesty, from your heart. I look forward to reading more from you — good work!


January 20, 2009 Hubert Sawyers III 11

Shannon, all I will say… you paid for this space. You can do whatever you want with it. If it’s relevant to you, then you should write about it. I am checking for your perspective and not just on social media. Keep writing and showing why you are a burgeoning thought leader in our community.


January 20, 2009 Shannon Paul 12

Brandon – Thank you for such kind words.

Jean – I’m glad to remind anyone of Toni Morrison’s great talent. I think her work is genius. Thank you also for the kind words.

Hubert – You’re such the good one. Glad to know you and thanks for the support. :)


January 23, 2009 akashtrivedi 13

Brilliant post. I couldn’t agree with you more.


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