Speaking Dumb and Other Perks
Posted on May 15, 2013
Too much writing can lead to aphasia, or the inexplicable loss of verbal agility. When aphasia is absent, words become sentences, and sentences make paragraphed-meanings that march, like battalions in battle, toward victorious communication. But in the crafting of meaning–through the weaving of words–we spend our capacity for eloquence, which, like most things, is a finite gift. I have not written (seriously) in a while, so my storehouses are full, my thread spooling, and my desire to be understood palpable.
Though I have yet to mention it on this blog, I have a stutter. My speech impediment expresses itself through oral disfluencies (blocking, saying “Uh” frequently, and repeating the initial vowel/consonant sounds of words). Stuttering is not something I consider central to my personality, but I do believe it has shaped me. I am more likely to be empathetic, far less likely to interrupt or talk over others, and more practiced at listening, which, contrary to what others might have you believe, is a skill.
In my listing of the benefits I believe stuttering has had on me, it sounds as though I have a very high opinion of myself. Although I’m pretty self-actualized and comfortable in my own skin, I wouldn’t consider myself an egomaniac. (Side question: Do egomaniacs ever consider themselves egomaniacs?)
Most days, I would trade all the “virtues” that have been forcibly instilled in me by stuttering for honest, genuine, and fluent oral communication with others. My desire to connect with other people and participate in meaningful dialogue is primary. Stuttering hampers, hinders, interferes, and redirects this desire. This is why I love to be surrounded by extroverted individuals. They initiate. Once conversations are initiated, I can happily bumble right into them, heedlessly tripping over my words.
If you don’t have a stutter, there are several examples from literature which–I think–come close to providing an accurate simulacrum of what stuttering feels like. At the beginning of David Foster Wallace’s brilliant novel, Infinite Jest (of which I have thrice read the first 200 pages), the protagonist, Harold Incandenza, faces an inquisitive college admissions board. Although Harold is brilliant, he has serious issues communicating with others; his body seizes up and his limbs flail about. While looking at the expectant faces of the college faculty, Harold thinks to himself, “I’d tell you all you want and more, if the sounds I made could be what you hear.” Like Harold, stutterers sometimes feel that no matter how urgently they want to communicate with others, the meaning they want to express will be lost in its garbled expression.
In his short story, Metamorphosis, Kafka does a good job of depicting the anxiety that stutterers feel about being misunderstood. Like Gregor Samsa–who, in Metamorphosis, is strangely and suddenly transformed into a giant bug–a person who stutters sometimes feels great apprehension about being understood as something or someone they are not. Insect transmogrification is obviously a more extreme condition than occasional verbal disfluency, but the two branches of experience share the same root of anxiety. Gregor continues to feel like a person throughout much of the story even though he is very much arthropod on the outside. Similarly, stutterers occasionally feel as though their true selves are being masked by a veneer of verbal sidestepping, hopscotching, and alteration.
Lest you think that stuttering is all gloom and anxiety, I’d like to also discuss the benefits of stuttering. In the category of moral virtues that stuttering may or may not help to engender is acceptance; stuttering is an excellent lens through which to understand and accept human frailty. There is no cure for stuttering, just as there is no cure for old age and eventual death. Some things are meant to be and be accepted. Acknowledging your frailty is different from accepting it. I have spent much of my life acknowledging my inadequacies, but I am still learning how to accept them. My stutter forces me, daily, to encounter and accept my infinitely limited self.
Stuttering is also a great tool for learning how to be vulnerable around others. Vulnerability is not weakness. Trust me on this one. My immediate vulnerability around and with others gives others the freedom to be vulnerable as well. Real dialogue happens in a place where everyone involved is safe and risking something. Vulnerability is a means to achieving real dialogue.
Being a teacher with a stutter is challenging. The stereotype of teachers is that they are fonts of knowledge, generously and fluently articulating their wisdom in lectures and discussions. This is not me. Certainly I lecture (one has to drop the knowledge), and certainly I participate in and guide class discussions. But I am more facilitator than professor–more participant than patriarch. I love my teaching approach and think it’s effective. And I teach as I do because of, not in spite of, my stutter.