Tag Archives: communication

In The Beginning Was The Sentence

Creation by Selfish Eden (deviantart.com)

Creation by Selfish Eden (deviantart.com)

Human beings have an incredible sense of perseverance when you think about it. We will take complex tasks, think them through, experiment, learn and then try to be prepared for the next time we use things. Now, on the one hand, this can lead to some unhealthy behaviors of hoarding or becoming pack rats but, at the same time, we don’t discard a tool that has become useful like animals will do. A chimpanzee may realize that it works well, for example, to use a stick to poke into an ant mound but they don’t store sticks for this use, when the chimpanzee comes upon the need he finds a stick and the same way with other tool using animals. Humans are unique in their ability to predict a future need based upon a past need and within language this also is a crucial development. (Bronowski, 1978, p. 32f.)

Now it is possible that there have been breakthroughs in animal communication that I am unaware of, but the way Bronowski illustrates this breakthrough is the concept that animals communicate not in words but sentences or ideas. For example a chipmunk may has a different signal based on danger from a snake, danger from the air, or danger from a large ground animal, but you can’t deconstruct and recombine these signals into components of danger and the type of animal-they are one unit. They paint in a way a limited verbal picture of their environment and the immediate need they need to respond to. Yet human language is different, and the way our language is structured relying on words and not sentences as the building block of communication allows for the sharing of knowledge and imagination in ways not possible otherwise. For example “Jack loves Jill” and “Jill loves Jack” even though they share the same components do not mean the same thing. Language becomes an incredibly powerful tool for conveying and sharing images, thoughts and even worldviews, a picture may be worth a thousand words but only if it is done well and the person viewing the picture can understand what it is. It is not a coincidence that early languages began with characters that represented pictorially the ideas they were trying to express, but as ideas became more and more complex and the communication of thoughts and ideas contained more and more words language evolved to use letters to create words reflecting the sound of the word. For a word either read or heard to be transformed into a visual image is an act of imagination and it may evoke different images for different readers/hearers. For example if I say “bird” someone may think of a sparrow or an eagle or an ostrich, or perhaps even an obscene gesture, words on their own begin to paint the picture and then when combined within a sentence with actions and descriptions we refine the picture.

Imagination and creativity may help with survival and with creating new tools and ideas that help an individual, but if they are going to make any lasting impression they need to be able to be communicated. The evolution of language, first spoken and later written, has made it possible to pass on and build upon the ideas of others. But there is always a process of taking the information we receive in terms of letters and sounds and reconstituting them in our mind in terms of images (and these images are often moving images-videos if you will) as we translate representations into a mental vision.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com

What I learned about myself, life and God from my son on the Autistic Spectrum: Part 3

Autism by 1 footonthedawn(deviantart.com)

Autism by 1 footonthedawn(deviantart.com)

5. We often value people for very superficial reasons part 1: There are a whole set of criteria that people are judged by constantly by those around them including, but not limited to: physical appearance and dress, weight, proportions, muscle tone, skin coloration, the manner in which a person carries themselves, appropriate social interactions and even smell plays into game of subconscious evaluation of others based on appearance. In less formal language we quickly determine who is cool and who is not within a group of peers, which people are noticed for being popular, who are the geeks, who are the outcast and who are the invisible members of a group. One of the gifts of learning to see things through my son’s eyes is that none of these things matter to him, he would say that he honestly doesn’t care about other’s evaluation of him even though he is entering an age where these things are very important to his peers. I found it interesting that his first real friend at his current school is another student who is also very smart but has Cerebral Palsy, and so is also unable to interact in the same manner as many of their peers. In fact Aren finds most of the social games played by his classmates as not only distracting but annoying. To me one of the gifts of the Christian tradition is the practice of communion or the Lord’s Supper where we gather around the table with others who have been drawn to be a part of the fellowship we share in Christ and around the table none of the typical valuations matter. All come on an equal footing to share in the foretaste of the feast that God promises us God’s kingdom. In the community I serve we have a number of people who may not rank very high on the social ladder for many of the reasons listed above and yet they are all people of value in the body of Christ.

6. We often judge people for very superficial reasons part 2: I am a very smart, tough and capable person and throughout my experience in schooling, the army and even within the church I learned quickly to judge a person based upon how competent they were. Competence looks like different things in different environments but this reduces a person’s worth to their functionality. My son is a very smart and capable young man but in a world that judges by physical attraction and social interaction he is at a disadvantage, on the other hand he tends to view the world even more harshly in terms of functionality than I ever did. There may be ways in which we use metrics to measure a person’s competence at a skill or a task, this is the whole world of testing in both the academic and business world, but we should never confuse competence with value. People have value regardless of their level of competence or physical or social traits. Within the world of competence also falls status, wealth, education, political power and fame which we also learn increase the value of a person in our eyes, yet this is precisely the type of valuation that Christians should be immune to (but apparently even the early church struggled with this due to the frequency it is addressed in the letters within the New Testament). I have on my wall a plaque that Nate Frambach, my advisor in seminary, gave me upon my graduation which states, “Neil Eric White, you are a baptized child of God, whatever else you are remember you are that for that is the basis of all that you are.” My valuation comes not from my own personal competence, wealth, power, physical appearance, social prowess or any other measure-it is a gift from God that I am valued (and not only me, and I would argue not only Christians).

7. Just because someone doesn’t seem to be paying attention doesn’t mean they aren’t listening and watching what you are doing. Now this applies to people regardless, but I mention it because in learning to see the world through my son’s eyes I realized that not everyone has to look to pay attention. I was always taught (and yes, I realize this is a very masculine way of approaching things) to look a person in the eye when they talk to you and by extension that if a person did not look at you they weren’t paying attention. The eyes for most of us take in a lot of the information that we interpret in our brains and in a world where eye contact is not only a symbol of paying attention but at times a symbol of confidence (in contrast not looking a person in the eye was perceived as either dishonesty or lack of trust in one’s ability). Most autistic people do not like to make direct eye contact, it is uncomfortable for them, and they may be involved in one task that seems unrelated to what is going on around them yet be able to see, hear and perceive everything that is being said. In fact for my son he actually listens better when he is not directly looking at something. That being said he watches and listens to everything. I remember Nate Frambach once sharing, “don’t worry that your kids aren’t listening to you, worry intensely that they are watching everything you are doing.” Over the past ten years I have become increasingly aware of the number of ways that people listen and process information and I have learned to become much more aware of my own biases in the ways I learned to communicate.

Still not done, so stay tuned for at least one more installment

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com

What I learned about myself, life and God from my son on the autistic spectrum: Part 2

Autism by 1 footonthedawn(deviantart.com)

Autism by 1 footonthedawn(deviantart.com)

This is part 2 of a reflection in honor of Autism awareness month.

3. We live in an incredibly complex world and human communication is even more complex. Because of what I do, as a pastor, I am constantly interacting with other people in various formats. I, like most people, took the process of communicating for granted because I naturally picked up the ability to read eyes, body language, vocal tone and inflection, pay attention to the environment selectively in addition to paying attention to the words being said. I am actually a fairly gifted watcher and listener, and this comes in particularly when I am counseling people (so much so that some people have remarked I am almost clairvoyant in reading not only messages but people). The entire process of communication involves knowing what to pay attention to and what not to pay attention to, and as I tried to understand the process of communication from my son’s perspective I began to realize how many incredible functions my eyes, ears, other senses and ultimately my mind was taking in, sorting and analyzing and responding to. For example, Aren has difficult understanding many types of verbal humor because it involves the way something is said as much as what is said  One example of how easy it is to misunderstand communication came up when he was in elementary school and we went to meet with Aren’s teachers because Aren felt he was being picked on by one student when this student had been wanting to play with Aren and Aren never responded (he is quite happy being on his own) and the student, who couldn’t understand this at this point, kept asking to play with him. This has made me more sensitive to the polyvalent character of communication, one group of words can have several sets of meaning based on context, environment, vocal inflection, body language and so much more. As an interpreter of texts, I have become increasingly aware of how important the reader’s predisposition is to what is actually being said, and we necessarily impose meaning on words to give them a broader picture. When I was growing up, one of the churches I attended tended to approach reading the Bible in a way that was flat and conveyed no emotion, so as not to impose meaning on the text (unfortunately they did impose meaning on the text, but it was a meaning that it was flat, dull and emotionless). People also have very different abilities to hear and to communicate, some have a natural talent for this and in general women are better at reading and responding to communication than men-yet everyone has something to contribute.

4. Spirituality is a function of imagination. This is a huge statement and something I am wrestling through and before people get up in arms about it let me explain what I am attempting to say. Spirituality (not religion, per se) involves the ability to wonder and to try to understand the world in a way that is not based entirely on empirical observations. A person in the modern world can understand the world, their existence and their values based entirely upon a scientific worldview and feel no need for anything more (this is not a new phenomenon). I find it interesting that both atheism and religious fundamentalism there is a huge need to convert others to their dogmatic view of the world and I believe that part of the common issue is a need to lock everything within a concrete system which often leaves little room for questioning and wonder. My son struggles with the concept of God (which is interesting and at time challenging as a pastor) but I also am aware of many autistic children and adults who are fundamentalist Christians who find great comfort in the dogmatic worldview. There is a desire for simplicity that is simply not there in the world (nor the Bible for that matter) and there tends to be less openness to a sense of spirituality which can doubt, question and wonder. I am by no means an expert at the relationship between imagination, wonder, doubt and the ability to ask questions that challenge preconceptions but my theory is that they are related. (Perhaps something to explore, another good question) We live in a world where imagination is viewed as a function of childhood, and therefore something which is not highly valued, but I believe that imagination is more vital part of our lives than we often understand. What I do know is that it is difficult for my son to understand and approach the world in the way I have learned to do, especially in the last couple years. This doesn’t make him any less valuable than me, but his view of spirituality will be different than mine (like the manners and ways in which he expresses emotions, love and communicates). My spirituality and the imaginative act of understanding God and the world doesn’t force me to be confined within my understanding. I have also learned to value those who feel more comfortable within a more rigid view of the world, much like the compression my son needed for emotional and cognitive stabilization when he was a child his worldview provides comfort for him in his life.

More to come…

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com