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.
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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