Language Lost and Found. SCN and Me.
It was the last Sunday in March of this year and I settled down to my usual weekend morning routine: My cat on my left side, a cup of coffee on my right, and the New York Times app open on my iPad. I clicked on the first story that caught my interest and started reading.
Oddly, it didn’t quite register. Though I read the full article, I seemed to miss the author’s key point.
So I read it again. It was a Sunday, after all. I had all the time in the world; the cat was purring, the coffee was hot.
Again, the key point of the article escaped me. “That’s strange”, I thought. Usually, articles in the New York Times are very well written and researched, so their themes are clear and transparent.
I read the piece again, and once more I didn’t understand.
Suddenly it hit me. It wasn’t the article. It was me. I didn’t understand.
I tried several other articles, with the same result – I could read the words, but was unable to grasp the meaning.
Alarmed, I reviewed the other oddities that I had experienced that week. Lights had been far too bright, sounds too loud. I had been unusually fatigued. Strangest of all, everything had seemed to smell uncharacteristically bad. At first I accused the neighbor’s cat of marking his territory too enthusiastically. The cat theory weakened when I experienced the same smell at the mall, at a restaurant, and at the grocery store.
Now very concerned that something was wrong with my brain, I went to see my doctor the next day.
He asked one question as soon as I had explained my odd experiences: “When you fell, did you hit your head?”
Indeed. Just over a week earlier, on a Saturday morning, I had tripped on an uneven sidewalk. I was on my way to a friend’s house for brunch, flowers in my left hand, iPhone in my right, following the “little blue dot” on the map for directions. I did not see the slight change in the height of the pavement, and as I catapulted through the air, a moment of hesitation – wanting to avoid crushing the beautiful bouquet of flowers I was holding – meant that I hit the concrete full force with my chin rather than being able to use my hands to break the fall. My nose was bloodied, my arm twisted and bruised, my pride wounded. Shortly afterward, I had gone to the same doctor to have my arm put back into place, and had then promptly forgotten about the incident.
Luckily, the doctor had not forgotten. He remembered the fall, and now he diagnosed a concussion.
Shrugging, completely unworried, he told me that the odd mental effects I had been experiencing were common after concussion – in fact, hallmarks of a post-concussion syndrome. He was very reassuring. “You’ll be fine. Just rest. No reading, no computer, no radio or TV. Just rest.”
Feeling much better knowing that my strange experiences did not mean I was going crazy, and assuming I would be as good as new in a few days, I did as he suggested. At first this was refreshing. I’ve been a voracious reader since childhood, and I listen to news and stories on the radio for hours on end. It was something of a “reset” to put those passions aside and pay attention to the world around me in a different and quieter way. I took naps, watched the birds, and pondered the budding trees of Spring.
This new way of being quickly became isolating, however. Throughout my life, I have been passionate about language. I was frustrated with books at the age of seven, very irritated that they had pictures. I didn’t want pictures – I wanted the words to paint the pictures for me. I studied Spanish, Polish, Russian, and German, recognizing that foreign languages painted different pictures and opened up windows to different worlds. At the age of twelve, my best friend taught me sign language. I was captivated. I realized that I think in English, Germans think in German. But deaf people, I wondered? How did deaf people think? In addition to my regular university courses, I studied psycholinguistics just for the fascination of it, and worked as a sign language interpreter for several of my college years.
Thus a world without words, a life without language, was a new universe to me.
And that universe expanded. By the end of the first week after the concussion diagnosis, as the slow swelling from the impact of the brain hitting the inside of my skull gradually progressed, I could not read at all. Letters and words are symbols, symbols for spoken language – and spoken language had also begun to escape me. I could engage in face-to-face interactions, but could not follow conversations on the telephone or voices on the radio. Even music, my lifelong friend, became unbearable – any song with lyrics was now just a cacophony of noise to me, and I learned to rely on simple piano music as my sole companion during the day.
My doctor remained unconcerned. “Ah, that’s normal,” he shrugged. “It’s just a concussion. Probably you need another twelve weeks to heal. Happens to people all the time”.
I wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth. What if he was just trying to soften the blow, so to speak, unwilling to tell me, just yet, that I would never read again? My typical response to any type of medical diagnosis is to do endless research on the internet, but that avenue of inquiry was closed to me.
So I opened up new avenues instead.
I thought about the people I know who live lives that are not steeped in language. Dancers, musicians, landscape architects. Dog walkers, baristas, choreographers, woodworkers.
They represented ways of living that I had rarely even considered. Prior to the fall, I spent my days surrounded by people like me – marketers, software specialists, and business people. Given their similar experiences, they had similar viewpoints to mine. I had not even recognized my deep assumption that language was the substance of life, until that substance was taken from me.
So I reached out to those whose lives centered on passions independent of language. Through interviewing them, I discovered new ways of looking at the world. I invited the dancer for coffee, and she described how she expresses her life experience through the most subtle movements of her body. I observed dog walkers and the joy they took in the simple pleasures of canine companionship. I talked with a musician who perceives a universe of meaning where others hear merely a melody.
I had not realized my own bias – my belief that the one and only way to experience, and to express, meaning, is through written and spoken language – until that language was lost. Though language will likely remain precious to me, I am grateful now that I see the world with an expanded comprehension. I now truly understand that my words and explanations may not be the most accessible way to communicate with a dancer. An image of a loving pet may be just what is needed to open a door with a dog owner. I recognize that the musician may best hear my message if I embed it in a melody.
And thus I am intensely grateful for the community represented by the SAP Community Network (SCN). Here, I discover a world of people whose way of experiencing the world and expressing their views on it is so very, very different from my own – yet so very, very universal. Here, my colleagues and friends express themselves in ways that help me truly access their humanity. Photographs, videos, blogs, music, cartoons, podcasts – each of us has a forum to express ourselves in a way that shares our understanding with others in our own creative ways, joining together in a common mission to help the world run better.
After several months, I’ve now finally recovered from the concussion and am able to return to my work that depends so heavily on my language skills and verbal communication; this is my first official blog since my return.
It feels like coming home, to once again use words to reach out to the world and weave a collaborative web every day with my colleagues. But I have returned a different person – one who much better appreciates the multitude of dimensions of experiences and ways of obtaining meaning from the world. I’m certain it will make me a better marketer and will help me build richer and more fascinating personal relationships.
I am grateful and relieved, though, to have the opportunity to once again live in the world and express myself in the way that suits me best, and I write this now to encourage the “lurkers” – those sitting on the sidelines, hesitating to contribute to SCN, worried that their language, or their art, or their music, is not the “right” way to express their views. I had to be hit on the head to recognize that there are many right ways of expression, each of which resonate with a lot of people.
Your way of expression is the right way — and it is the only way for you, for it is how you can best say what you have to contribute. So go ahead, use it for the benefit of all of us to enrich the community. Don’t wait until your language is lost to discover that for yourself.