During my first dog mushing experience, the musher barely had to whisper gee (for left) or haw (for right) and the dogs all the way up at the front would respond.
This is a speech act at its most basic level. It is a directive.
There are many speech acts that so transform our cultural space that to try to understand conflict without them is like trying to cook without a spoon.
While I was first intellectually introduced to these concepts by the brilliant
philosopher and psychologist, Rom Harré the power of his words became most apparent to me this month in the mountains of Northern CA.
I was in a small town an hour or so east of San Francisco to give a sermon at a small church in a little railroad town of 900 (more on the sermon later). I was staying with my friend, the Pastor, who is also a hospice chaplain.
During the weekend with her, her partner, and their friends, two powerful stories emerged that demonstrating to me why speech acts matter, impacting how we story and operate within the world in which we find ourselves.
Story 1: Death Is Coming
My friend, the hospice Chaplain works with a variety of families in the area. Her work includes not only speaking with those knocking on death's door, but also often with the families. Because of her experience working at a bereavement camp (where we met), she has now been asked to work with more of the children in the area and children of those in hospice care. She now finds herself called upon to be in the room when the kids are first formally told, "Your father (mother,sibling,etc) is going to die."
My friend said the child, especially if they are pre-teen or older often already knows, but there is something powerful in hearing the words "Your mother will die." In fact, we now know these words are so powerful, unless the person is like 95% gone, you really cannot tell them. Patients tend to follow doctors' orders. If you say I will die in X months, then I'll do it.
On the other hand, there seems to be power in coming clean about death when you do know or when the patient plans to die. Even if everyone knows the person is dying, the speech act to the members of the family is important and powerful. People can react in any number of ways, she told me.
These words change the world in which we find ourself.
I wondered, is the moment after hearing these words really different than the moment before? Materially, no, but life will never be the same.
The speech act has power. It can put us on an entirely different stage.
Story 2: We're Getting Married
Her friends told a story that demonstrated in a totally different context the power of the speech act. These two women had been living together for over 30 years, but could not legally marry until the laws changed in California. As soon as they changed, they married. The nephews of one of the women was in seminary at the time of wedding and refused to attend. He did not support their homosexual relationship.
She said to him something to the effect,"You have known us your entire life. Why do you all of a sudden have a problem with us now?"
He said something like, "Well, I didn't realize you were a couple"
Her response, "we have been living together for over 30 years, moved together multiple times. What did you think was going on?"
He said, "Well, it wasn't until you said you were getting married that it became real."
Here again, we see the power of the speech act. Life was going along and no one paid any mind until the words were uttered or wanted to be uttered in this formal way. 'I want to marry X' and all of a sudden a happy couple of 30+ years and their relationship with their nephew is now on the rocks.
How is it that a handful of words that effectively change nothing in our day-to-day can upend our sense the world and our place in it?
I am sure many wise people have written on this and I apologize for not taking the time now to look for them for you (perhaps later). But I suspect it is because language evokes cultural rules and norms, standards of behavior. Without the words it's just working, eating, sleeping, etc. and other animal behavior. When we declare something we distinguish ourselves from the animal kingdom and cipher off what is good from what is evil...at least in our minds.
Centuries of moral codes are evoked when you say marriage or endless religious liturgy or medical realities when one says death...
Here we find that suspended moment that made me fall in love with narrative...that beautiful moment between something happening and what we make it mean. Before the speech act gives it 50 tons of meaning..we are just hanging with things how they are and how they are not.
The nephew was ok before the marriage declaration and the child maybe fine (or as fine as one can be) with the dying status of the parent, but the act brings so much more. I'm not saying the declaration should not happen in either case, many new narrative spaces open up when we can actually speak openly about death, marriage , or love that perhaps cannot be uttered before the speech act is uttered.
So all you conflict resolvers out there (and that's anyone reading this), I'm just suggesting what Harré suggested to us... pay attention to these little acts around you. How do they make you feel? What can now be said because the words have been declared? What feels different?
Just something to think about....