Earlier tonight I began reading Hisham Matar’s novel, In the Country of Men. In it, the narrator’s mother speaks of grief, a topic I have been reading about, experiencing, and thinking of quite a bit lately.
“Grief loves the hollow; all it wants is to hear its own echo.”Spoken by the character Najwa in Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men
A thought occurred to me the other day. I had heard (or possibly read) the phrase “it’s what you do that matters” which is similar to the phrase “actions speak louder than words.” I thought about this for some time, and I began to wonder what if saying something took as much effort as doing something. What would the world look like if it took as much effort to speak as it did to perform an activity?
Speech is such an abstraction. It is merely sound that has been codified to portray meaning, to communicate ideas. It can be beautiful and it can be terrible, but it is very easy to do. It’s nearly as easy as breathing. But this ease brings with it the effortlessness of dishonesty, or also of speaking in haste. I’m sure everyone has things they regret saying, even if they weren’t harmful things. Failing to communicate fully, to express everything you mean to say and wish for another to understand, can be just as painful, just as damaging, as speaking maliciously.
Often, there are times when we question if we should have spoken. If it might not have been better just to listen. But the ease of speaking is facilitated by the effort it takes to show restraint. When it comes to speaking, it is often more difficult to prevent it. Whereas with action the opposite is true.
Action lives in the real of time more than speech. Sound travels quickly. You need only think of something to say, breathe out, and it’s done. But action requires time, and time allows for more thought. Time is a greater obstacle to action. It weighs upon a person’s will. With action, it is more difficult to facilitate it than it is to restrain it.
This is no knew discovery. It’s obvious when you give it a moment’s thought. It is probably the fundamental idea behind the above common phrases.
If speaking were to elicit the same amount of effort, and I can’t imagine how that could realistically be done (a stray, cautionary thought of the Handicapper General in Kurt Vonnegut’s short story Harrison Bergeron just came to mind) what sort of impact would that have on the world? Surely it would slow things down… but is that a bad thing? We hear people talk of active listening as a way to condition ourselves away from our common, more superficial mode of engagement. And surely those skills help.
On the other hand, we are also shown time and time again the ease with which some actions, truly devastating actions, can be taken. Dropping bombs, withholding aid, passing restrictive laws, etc… So perhaps this is not a case of either-or. Perhaps it is a case of disconnection, of distance. Something we are all suffering from, during the pandemic, now more than ever. Why is it that we feel so disconnected from one another, and, while we clearly yearn for a sense of significance, do we not seek to actually be more connected with one another. Not settling for this superficial exchange, but really seeking to experience who each other is, how many shades of life, of experience there can be.
Another thought relating to grief came into my mind since writing my post about still being a sad and angry teenager. Love is incredibly complicated, but perhaps we make it more complicated than it needs to be. Of course, we fall into the trap of valuing ourselves through the eyes of others, especially those who have, by both their words and actions, communicated to us that we are special to them. We like this. Feeling special. The world can make a person feel incredibly insignificant, and so we find ways to be important in other people’s lives. Love is one of these ways.
But it seems that true love…proper love, is allowing, or indeed facilitating that other to experience their freedom. To use their freedom to do whatever they want with it. Much like how parents, who love their children unconditionally, learn that they cannot control forever the actions of their children, no matter how much they think their intervention can protect them.
Otherwise, there is the risk of feeling hurt when they do not do what you want them to do. That is where it all falls apart. Where something beautiful can become something terrible. Something expansive can become something constricting, suffocating, and a breeding ground for misery and grief, which “loves the hollow” and yearns to hear it’s own echo.