Cat raised the issue yesterday that she is clear about only being able to speak for herself. That sharing of personal experience is very much intrinsic to what Cat does, but at the same time because she’s a prominent Pagan and Druid, there’s every likelihood other people will hear her words as being typical of, or on behalf of others. As she says, that’s not something you get a lot of control over. Trying to imagine ‘the reader’ with the many faces and opinions, all the places those words might go – well, that’s one way to drive yourself slowly round the bend, but inevitably that too becomes part of the job.
There are ways though, in which speaking for other people can be a meaningful act of service. It depends on a number of factors – depth of personal experience, emotional intelligence, linguistic skill and having a bunch of people who could do with some words. Generally speaking this is not a service the Druid community will call for, thanks to most of us having the skills to talk our own talk. Now and then my being able to wrap language around an experience seems to be useful for other people, but it’s more a dialogue than a service, I feel. I’m learning as much as I’m dishing out, if not more. However, out there in the rest of the world, speaking for others has a lot more relevance.
I spent two terms on something called The Freedom Program – it’s a structured, self help based course for women recovering from domestic abuse. It explains the mechanisms of abuse, enabling victims to understand how they got to where they are and avoid returning to abusive relationships. Abuse is a process, very few people get hit on the first date because most women would have the sense to get the hell away from that. There’s a slow and deliberate erosion of self, self esteem, confidence and sanity that enables the physical abuse, although the psychological impact is probably the more damaging bit. Women come out of that dazed, confused, demoralised, deeply wounded and struggling to explain themselves. Many go back to their abuser, or find another one. Frequently, said women are also faced with disbelief and hostile systems when they are at their most vulnerable and fragile. I say ‘they’ but I was there too.
I’ve always been good with words, and comfortable attaching language to experience and emotion. I’m able to think logically about feelings and to articulate that. So, given the framework of the Freedom Program, I started talking, slowly, painfully about what had happened to me. I learned a thing: Other women found this useful. They were able to say ‘me too!’ or ‘I know what that feels like’, and ‘that was it.’ In telling my own story, I was, week by week, providing additional language with which other women became able to tell their stories too, or at least say ‘I was there’ and not have to delve into revelation whilst still being able to get some catharsis out of sharing. A minority of women on that course had missed out at school, lacked confidence in their own cleverness, but through the sessions became more able to speak, to hear their own voices, recognise their own strength. It was powerful stuff.
Sometimes speaking for yourself is such a raw and painful activity, that it can be a relief to have someone else say it and be able to go ‘me too’ and that be enough. Sometimes the language needed to put experience into words isn’t available to a person, and being given the words to make sense of the experience is very helpful. Talking cures abound in counselling, but if you don’t have the breadth of language and the confidence to match words to feelings, that kind of talking therapy is pretty hard to make any use of.
There are times when speaking for other people is all about self assertion, self importance and disempowering the person whose voice you have squashed. That’s not the whole story. Most people out there don’t have much of a language for talking about emotional experience, much less religious experience. The soul yearning will be no less present, but with no means of expression, it’s much easier to ignore it and turn to some short term remedy that doesn’t help. However much we speak for ourselves, it’s worth having an eye to the potential to be speaking for others, because that speech can be a process of endowing others with language, terms of reference and narrative structures in which they can then go on to talk about their own things.
Having been there, it is the most humbling sort of process, when a lost and stumbling person starts to pick up the words you have spoken, and rearranges them to tell their own story, where before they could not. That can break your heart, in the best possible way.