Saturday, January 13, 2007

speech and love

For years, people knew that autistic kids had a hard time learning to talk. And in the 1970's, the behaviorists of the world came in with what they saw as a solution: teaching autistic kids to say words.

So they would sit across the table from them, show them a picture, and reinforce them for saying the word that goes with the object. Apple. Dog. Cow. Nose.

And in a very limited sense, they could claim success. The autistic kids would learn to say words. But there was a problem: many times, the autistic child wasn't really communicating. They would say "dog" or "cat" or "tree," but if you asked them what they did that day? Nothing. Ask them what their favorite kind of ice cream is? Again, nothing.

So you'd get kids who would say a bunch of words, perhaps repeating songs over and over from TV shoes or movies they'd seen, but not really communicating, not really sharing anything about their inner world.

In recent times, insightful folks studying developmental psychology and language have come to realize that the behaviorists had it all backwards. First you have to create rich mental life, full of things that the child understands and wants to express. Then come the words, because the child has something to talk about.

Which all reminded me of some of Paul's great writing about gifts. "If I speak in tongues" "If I have the faith to move mountains"...all for naught if love is not also present. It struck me that perhaps in a sense, our inner emotional and spiritual life is rather like a young child learning to talk. Will our actions, our gifts be simply words, lacking anything communicative or substantial? Will we be little more than the "noisy gong" Paul refers to? Or will our gifts reflect an emotional and spiritual life filled with love?

In my job, there are some sessions that seem profoundly moving to the people I'm working with, that seem to trigger or create meaningful change. But there is no easy way of understanding why that session was helpful and another perhaps not so much. It isn't about whether I talk a lot or a little, whether we focus on the past or the present, whether we look at their inner world or try to manage the outer one.

I like to think instead that any of these approaches can be helpful, depending on the circumstance. What is important is for me to try my best to stay attuned to them. Not to try to prove that I have wisdom to offer, or that I am competent in what I do. Not to solve the problem for them or give them all the answers. But to trust in them and myself, to offer love and compassion -- as well as loving and compassionate confrontations at times, and to respond to where they are at that moment.

Then (if I am lucky) my words might have the power to move people. Then, perhaps, the words become more than a noisy gong.


Pastor Peters said...

It's like that movie Crash -- which I just had a conversation about today so it's on my mind. We are so longing to bump into each other. We are craving connection. I think language often trips us up in the real genuine honesty of that connection. Does that make it a noisy gong? I'm not so sure. But, it seems that in our culture, we do indeed need to create more real moments to be with each other -- where those real connections happen. It sounds like that's what you are doing...

Magdalene6127 said...

Steve, this post is really powerful. In fact, I feel that I will carry it with me as I write my sermon this week on 1 Corinthians 12. The difference between the raw "gift" (perhaps, in this instance, the ability to say the words), and the participating in the Spirit (perhaps, the bringing together of words for expressing joy, love... still a jumble in my head, but I feel that you have stirred my reflections.


steve said...

pastor peters,

I should probably watch that movie. I've heard good things. I like that idea that by creating "real" moments together with people, we are showing love in a deeper way.


Thank you for your kind words. I think that, in a sense, our words can become "autistic" if we are not careful. That is, they can become lacking in depth, compassion, love. They can become sounds devoid of spiritual meaning.

In any case, I'm very pleased if you found my writings thought provoking.

more cows than people said...