An old German proverb runs: “Wer spricht mit mir ist mein Mitmensch; wer singt mit mir ist mein Bruder” (the one who speaks with me is my fellow human; the one who sings with me is my brother).
I read this quote in a weekly email I get from Christianity Today’s Books and Culture.
It connects, in a way that I’m not sure I’ll be able to verbalize (though I’m certain to use a lot of words trying!), with two powerful books I’ve been reading:
Thinking in Pictures, by Temple Grandin (autobiographical insights into autism)
Welcome to My Country, by Lauren Slater (biographical and autobiographical insights into mental illness)
I have a fascination with the extremes of humanity (and I’m not happy with that phrase, but I’m struggling to find a way to express what is on my heart without sounding demeaning or patronizing and without sounding naive or simplistic.)
I want to read about and think about those who are most extremely isolated and cut off from communication. Deafness is one of the most obvious causes of verbal isolation. It is also probably the most understood and socially acceptable. I’ve been thinking about people whose isolation is much more severe. (If deafness is your challenge, I realize you may not be understood or interacted with in ways that feel equal and accepting. I’m speaking relatively, though, so, please, please? don’t take offense as if I’m trying to minimize the isolation you feel.)
In particular, with the help of the above mentioned books, I’m thinking about the isolation that comes from the very different contexts of schizophrenia and autism. There are many other reasons a person may be cut off from interpersonal communication and relationship, and I’m not minimizing any of them. The challenges of autism and schizophrenia, however, give me two concrete ways of thinking about extreme isolation that some people experience.
My fascination with these topics is not just morbid curiosity. Firstly, my story has intersected with the lives of people for whom isolation in these forms is a reality.
In addition, I think about the causes of relational isolation, because I care about people. I care about connection. And I care about the communication that is necessary for such connection to take place (amazing processes that I tend to take for granted, except when faced with situations where communication and connection seem almost impossible.) And when that communication and connection seems impossible, I can’t easily dismiss it as a neurological misfunction or chemical imbalance and write off any responsibility I have to treat isolated people (for whatever reason) as people designed for relationship and communication.
If that can’t happen, I cannot be appalled or laugh or run or mock. I must long for connection even when it seems impossible, and at the very least, grieve the ongoing loss experienced. At the best, I would hope that I could search for ways to connect to the heart and reality of another person, even if it seems impossible or futile.
And then, I can’t just disregard or forget about people who live in isolation for whatever reason, because I’m forced to ask, “What is the relevance of the gospel to this person, who seems outside of the ability to receive any communication at all?” Is the good news of Jesus only for those who are easy to connect to? Of course not, but what does that mean for me?
Well, that’s my attempt at trying to put into words all the mixed up feelings about why I am interested in and care deeply about people who are isolated. It just happens, at this moment, that my interest and learning in this area is focused around autism and schizophrenia.
Now for my attempt to connect the above quote with my reading.
I’m wondering about the power of song to make connection and be a starting point for communication in situations where the obstacles to communication seem insurmountable.
In the book Thinking in Pictures, Grandin talks about how some people with autism (and the corresponding sensory overload difficulties) cannot hear or make sense of speech, because the sound of intonation is too loud. Intonation is a funny bird. It’s not conscious in the same way that individual words and grammar are. We don’t ever really teach our children intonation. And when you correct the way a child says something, you are more likely to correct specific sounds or wrong constructions than you are to say, “Use this intonation and not that.”
Without a frame of reference, it may be hard to understand how intonation can be so loud that someone couldn’t hear the rest of speech. Here are the two best examples I have thought of that help me imagine in a tiny way, how this could be:
Have you ever set and listened to a preacher who says everything in a yelling tone, that in any other context, you’d hear as angry? Can you really hear and internalize a message about how gracious and loving God is when it’s being hollered at you? I, personally, have a hard time with this. Even when someone is angry at me and trying to communicate that anger, it is sometimes hard for me to hear the actual words (the message or heart of their anger) because of the “loudness” of their intensity. Can you imagine, then, what it would be like, if in everyday speech, you didn’t have the filters that keep intonation in their helpful place? If you always heard intonation so loud it overwhelmed the message?
The second example of how intonation can make it hard to hear a message, even for people who can naturally and easily keep intonation “in its place” occurred this past Sunday in church. I visited a little church, which I have attended a few times before. This Sunday, the pastor was someone for whom English is a second language. He gave an amazing sermon. I hope I can get a copy of it, because it was so good. But, I had to work very hard to follow him. I was thinking about why that was. First, his English was very good. Yes, he had an accent, but he really did a very good job accurately pronouncing English words. His grammar was excellent, and his vocabulary was great. The thing that made it hard was that his intonation pattern was very Spanish (okay, if you are a Spanish speaker, that is probably way too generic, but it’s the best I can do.) I liked the way the intonation sounded–it had a beautiful rhythm and was flowing. BUT, it made it hard for me to keep up. It was like the words and intonation were competing. And even though I could understand him, it took a lot of work. Understanding intonation was no longer just a backseat thing. I had to keep overriding the natural way I follow intonation and let it guide me to understanding, because when the intonation didn’t “fit” the rules my brain uses, my brain’s intuitive and natural interpretation of intonation kept getting in the way.
In a sense, what I needed to do was to be able to shut off the part of my brain that listens and makes sense of things with intonation, because the way my brain makes sense of intonation wasn’t working with the intonation being used by this pastor. What would it be like if you always heard intonation like a backseat driver that kept popping up making itself more obvious than it is supposed to be? I wonder if that is what it is like for some people with autism?
Back to the connection I was making: Temple Grandin talks about how kids who experience sensory overload and inadequate filters with intonation can sometimes learn to sing language before they can learn to speak it. This is obviously not a one-size-fits-all observation, but still, I love the thought of music being a tool for making connection–for words, sung instead of spoken, to be more manageable. I don’t understand it all, and can’t explain how or why it works (why is music not overwhelming when intonation is?)
Schizophrenia, while very different from autism, seems in part (according to some theories, including one presented in the book by Lauren Slater) also to be a problem of inadequate filters. So much unfiltered information comes in, so garbled, that it is impossible to make sense of it. Conversely, when trying to take what is inside and put it in a form that can come out, it can be difficult for a person with schizophrenia to eliminate all the extras that garble the message.
Again, I know I’m oversimplifying things hugely here. I’m very far from an expert on schizophrenia. But, still, I ask, could music be a way to make connection accessible, to allow a taste of relationship to happen?
I’m not talking big picture here. I’m not being presumptuous enough to talk about music as a cure for anything. I’m just thinking through what role music could play in a relationship with a person with schizophrenia. Not with any agenda as grand as bringing a delusional person back to reality, or helping a non-functioning person achieve some level of functionality in daily living. But, just for the simple hope of finding a way to meet a person in their reality. To join them there in some shared place, with some hint of a shared language. What if music, for some, could be part of that shared language?
For myself, I know there have been many times in my great pain, when everything was so overwhelming that I could neither put my despair or my hope into words. And yet, there were words set to music that expressed simply what I was feeling. My own internal jumble made it hard to gather words to describe what was going on, but somehow certain songs could make sense of it all. In those times, I have found comfort not only in the words, but in sharing those words with others who cared about me, even though my words didn’t make sense, because they seemed, at times, contradictory, excessive and illogical.
At one of my most hopeless times, a friend asked me if there was any area of my life I experienced hope in. The thing that came to mind was a song I was listening to over and over by John Michael Talbot. It is taken from part of Mary’s Magnificat. And the answer I had to my friend’s question was a line from that song, “For the mighty God has done great things for me, and His mercy will reach from age to age.” I couldn’t really make logical sense of that. I couldn’t articulate that for myself. There were too many other conflicting struggles I had, to figure out and put into words what my hope was. But in a very real way, those words set to that tune, touched a deep part of me, where I knew that, whatever else was going on, this was what I believed and this was the root of why I hadn’t given up.
I’m not trying to minimize the difficulty with connection that someone with schizophrenia has by saying, “Oh, I also know what it is like to be so overloaded that I can’t find words of connection.” What I am trying to say is that music is powerful. And, if there is any way music can help a voiceless person lost in their own world (whatever the reasons or scientific explanation for that) find a voice or a way to connect, however temporarily, with another person, then that is a very good thing.
As I’m writing, I’m remembering someone who told me about their mother who had Alzheimer’s. She had lost all ability to connect to the present. She was irrational and angry. She couldn’t even speak in ways that made sense. But she could still sing perfectly the old hymns she had grown up singing. For that person as well, I am not the one to try to figure out how to help her function. Or how to lessen the problems of not having any current ability to recognize people or be oriented to the here and now. But, I think it would it would be a very good thing to be able to enter her world (instead of fighting to keep her in this present reality “the rest of us” share) and connect with her there, where she is, by singing with her the songs that she still has words for.
Can I say what those words mean to her? No. All I can say is, I’ll sit with you, in this place, and sing and speak and rest with you, where you are. Without a demand on you (however much I would long for this) for you to come relate to me in my world. Is this an ideal scenario? Of course not. We all want connection and communication to be so much more than this. But, this side of heaven, I think connection through the language of music, however limited, can still be a deeply meaningful connection. Maybe especially meaningful in relationships where connections seem so hard to come by.