Communicating is hard, I always tell my writing class participant. To ourselves, we are beacons of clarity. Our readers (or listeners) are also beacons of clarity. Often, the beacons point in different directions, and communication runs off the tracks.
Here’s a real life example. I have a necklace that holds a silver hand, shaped from a petroglyph found in Arizona. The hand is decorated with dots and spirals, the way the original is. Here’s a photo.
Many cultures honor an open hand as a symbol of generosity, giving, helping, healing or creativity. Depending on the culture, the open hand faces fingers up (healing, creativity) or fingers down (generosity, helping). On this talisman, the fingers point down. Graphically, it makes sense.
I’m wearing the necklace as I shuffle through the TSA line at the airport. After reading countless warning signs, I approach the desk when called, extend my license and boarding pass and wait, not making eye contact. The TSA agent speaks. “Are you a proud American?” he asks. I wonder where this is going, but am not interested in delaying my progress though the line.
“Yes, Sir,” I answer, politely, smiling a teeny bit, so as to look neither fearful nor bold.
“I can tell from that great American eagle you are wearing,” he says, and hands back my license and phone.
This makes no sense to me. There is no bird on my shoulder and I never wear anything except dark, solid-color clothing when I travel. Shrugging it off, I move toward the gate. Obediently, I wait as the elite numbers of platinum, gold, silver, and other precious-metal card holders are allowed to board. When they announce the dross boarding list, I once more assume shuffle mode. Eventually, I step into the airplane. The flight attendant glances at my chest and says in a super-cheery voice, “I know someone who is going trick-or-treating tonight. Eww, that is a creepy vulture you are wearing.”
Nothing about my clothing has changed. I glance down at the petroglyph hand. It faces fingers down, and looks like this:
Eagle, vulture, hand. We can communicate, but what is understood happens in the brain of the person we communicate with. The Talmud says, “We do not see the world the way it is; we see the world the way we are.” We all see what we want to see, and we believe it is the truth.
–-Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches writing.