Magdalena Bak-Maier, PhD – Meaningful Expression (Even When It’s Not Consciously Intended)

On my way to the station in London I pass a young, homeless man. I don’t know his exact age though he looks like someone who is in his twenties. He sits up against the brick wall of the station tracks reading books. One time I got a glimpse of the cover. He was reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. In front of him there’s a plastic white cup for coins. Most days he has a few including one-pound coins. I would hazard a guess that there’s about five pounds in total. His legs are covered in a blanket on which his book rests. Propped up against him is a brown cardboard which reads: “Homeless. Looking for work.” I grew up in New York City and I’m accustomed to people asking for money but this chap is not asking. He doesn’t actively try to get your attention. He doesn’t get in your way asking that you spare him dough for something to eat. He is simply there reading.

Around five-thirty a.m. every morning, a group of eight to fifteen men assemble a few blocks away on the corner of a convenience store. They are Eastern European, mostly Poles. Day workers. They stand in groups of two or three awaiting contractors that pick them up for extra jobs paid on a daily rate. When I think about those men and the young boy with his begging cup and that sign, I think he ought to change his cardboard slogan and make it more precise. Something along the lines of “Homeless. Like reading. Waiting for work to find me.” It would at least be more accurate. In fact, I would give him money if for no other reason than because the saying would seem more honest given that just a few blocks away work is looking for men. I have never said that to him by the way. I pass by him most mornings curious about what he’s reading, thinking that perhaps he ought to find a job that involves books, wondering about his story. So why do I bring this up? Because I’m struck with the lack of precision we often use when we communicate ideas and how working with this consciously we can nonetheless create some surprising results.

Raymond Petra, "No Title (Heartness is a...)"
Raymond Petra, “No Title (Heartness is a…)”

One of my favorite stand-ups, the late American comedian, George Carlin, had a lot to say about the peculiarities of the English language. I admire his skillful examinations and parodied depictions of ways ideas are presented and concealed within our everyday little world, as well as how the larger world around us influences our thinking. The bottom line of much of his comedy was a call to attention. To notice. To become aware. To think for ourselves. Carlin’s shows often included euphemisms that concealed or distorted the real meaning just as this young man’s cardboard seems to mask reality: a big unknown story – his story as well as a larger world where many young but also old people feel disenfranchised and unable to communicate with others directly. If this man is indeed looking for work, his method of looking seems least likely to produce the desired outcome. So I wonder what is his true intention is really. If he’s lost or in need of help–then again his communication both on the cardboard and in his manner of being aloof reading books fails to give clues or engage me and others in anything truly meaningful. Or does it?

For all the prominence of language, words are but one form of communication and many writers and poets forever bemoan the suffering connected with capturing the true expression of one’s thoughts and feelings with the precision the writer may experience within their imagination. When successfully done, the novel, poem, essay or lecture becomes a masterpiece just as in visual art. But it is by no means an easy task. For language by its very nature has to represent the full richness and complexity of our mind with all the thoughts and emotions and the state of our very soul at a precise moment.  Yet for all artists dealing with spoken or written language, within the brain it is literally squeezed out of us through two narrow doorways. One of them, called Wernicke’s area, is concerned with comprehension of language and our ability to communicate coherent ideas. The other, Broca’s area, mostly involves our ability to produce speech just as a visual artist must take a concept and channel it through the use of their hands. The mouth, hands, eyes, and bodies become instruments with which one can take a specific medium be it oil, film, body or pencil and represent, convey, express meaning. And here lies the limitation and the power of all art forms in my view: a co-creation between that which is produced and the observer.

Our brains create and understand meaning in far richer ways that allow for symbolic representation: something visible that by association or convention represents something else that is invisible and far more simple or complex. And it is that which the medium, whether spoken, written, danced or drawn, must manage to capture. So words and phrases give a fractional and at times misleading perspective through which the complete meaning of what is being communicated or said has to be deduced. The cardboard and the words on it are both a practical limitation and an opening to many possibilities.

Given the power of words to move, inspire, attract and help us–and the reliance on spoken word in much of our work with other people in counseling and psychology– I wonder whether we truly take time to consider what is being said and not said, how it’s being said and in what context, and how it can help transform us and the world around us instead of frustrating us from its lack of precision, for example. I’ve certainly come across people in my practice who, like the young man outside the station, say one thing but mean or want another. Until we name that and explore it, little seems possible. Like coins in a plastic cup they collect their thoughts but remain stuck sitting in front of their own cardboards waiting for ‘something’ to find them. So the young man inspired me to try a new approach and ask where appropriate these sorts of questions:

  •  In what part of your life are you feeling homeless?

  •  If you had a cardboard in front of you what’s written on it?

  • What are you hoping to collect in your plastic cup in anything?

  • What are you truly seeking?

  • How can you best ask for it and of whom?

  • What will moving on be like? Look like? Feel like?

I’m still curious about what the young, homeless man at the station is really trying to say and to whom? Whether he needs something or not. In truth, I’m afraid to talk to him for fear of being told to get lost. Without this information his mere presence, reading behind the seemingly misleading cardboard sign and a plastic cup for money, is more like live art. I watch it each time I pass by. And in watching and considering this young man has enriched my world greatly. His main function in my case seems to be to stimulate me to consider, reflect and engage in thinking about the power of simple presence, power of words, their meaning and all the things that words alone however precise can’t convey without the story behind them.

I’m struck and reminded about the power of anything in our life that we truly notice and give attention to, such as this homeless man in my case, to become valuable in unexpected and/or unintended ways. And for that I drop a five-pound note into this man’s plastic cup and wish him well. He says thanks softly but doesn’t look up at me. I wonder what he’s reading but don’t dare to ask. I’m already late for work.

Carlin may be gone but his astute observations on our behavior, America, sociopolitical zeitgeist and our language seem to still apply as much as this opening passage from A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

Magdalena Bak-Maier, PhD | Get Productive!

And, for an antidote to the written word watch the good old George Carlin clip on soft language we collude in using to obscure and conceal real meaning and how it serves us:

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