Missing the days of my youth, I recently decided to have my tonsils removed.
OK. Maybe it wasn’t exactly like that, but I did have them out recently.
Besides the pain, the most difficult part of the process was not having a voice. Knowing that I have young children, the doctor warned me that this surgery was going to be a challenge because I wouldn’t have a voice for some time after. So, I armed myself with a notepad, a pen, and a bell. It was a cute, little souvenir Liberty Bell from Philadelphia – about 2 inches in size.
As it turns out, that was not the right size bell. With kids at home on summer vacation, a more appropriately sized bell would have been the actual Liberty Bell. Let me tell you, it is completely impossible to break up sibling squabbles with a little “ting-a-ling-a-ling” while waving a scrawled “Stop fighting!” sign. The kids would pause for a split-second, look at me, laugh, and go on fighting. In retrospect, I concede, it must have been a rather hilarious scene.
The problem though, was that not being able to communicate is incredibly frustrating. As I lay there, my mind kept returning to the phrase the Jesuits had drilled into our heads in school about how we are called to be the “voice for the voiceless.”
I silently pondered what would cause one to be “voiceless.” Besides illness, being “voiceless” can be the result of unjust societal constructs, racism and other prejudices, lack of financial means, lack of education, being a minority, being unborn or being of advanced age, being a gender that is not allowed to speak in one’s own culture, following a religion that is not allowed to practice freely in one’s own country, not being in favor with the ruling party, and being displaced by war, famine, extreme poverty, or natural disasters. All of these things can render one “voiceless.”
The consequences of being voiceless are serious and complex:
Not having a voice is frustrating.
I was surrounded by people who loved me and wanted to help me, yet I found it difficult to get anyone to stay still long enough to read the whole message I was frantically scrawling on my notepad. Halfway through the sentence I was writing, they would try to fill in the rest and start walking away to get what they thought I needed. I was so grateful to be surrounded by family that wanted to help, but almost all of the time, what they thought I was trying to say was not that which they had imagined it to be.
My mind would turn to those who are actually voiceless.
How often do we assume we know what they need but not really take the time to hear what they are saying? How often do we take the time to see the whole situation? When we see the frustration and desperate attempts of those who do not have a voice, do we turn away or do we take the time to stop, listen, and then act?
Not having a voice restricts freedom and opportunity.
I was restricted in my ability to communicate. I could not get the things I needed because people were not able to hear my needs. When one does not have a voice, they do not have the freedom to make decisions that others take for granted.
When we are seeking to address the needs of the voiceless, do we take the time to listen to them? How often do we give those we are trying to help the opportunity to make choices for themselves? When we are seeking to address their needs, do we take the extra time it requires to allow them the freedom to make their own decisions?
Being voiceless leads to dependency.
Being voiceless is completely disempowering. I had no choice but to be dependent on those around me.
When we see those who are voiceless, do we foster dependency or do we work to empower them? Do we work to build systems that honor the human dignity of each individual?
Being “voiceless” involves a very real suffering that is most aptly addressed, as Pope Francis puts it, by building a “culture of encounter.”
“We need, for example, to recover a certain sense of deliberateness and calm. This calls for time and the ability to be silent and to listen. We need also to be patient if we want to understand those who are different from us. People only express themselves fully when they are not merely tolerated, but know that they are truly accepted. If we are genuinely attentive in listening to others, we will learn to look at the world with different eyes and come to appreciate the richness of human experience as manifested in different cultures and traditions.” (Message of Pope Francis for the 48th World Communications Day, 24 January 2014)
“May the image of the Good Samaritan who tended to the wounds of the injured man by pouring oil and wine over them be our inspiration. Let our communication be a balm which relieves pain and a fine wine which gladdens hearts. May the light we bring to others not be the result of cosmetics or special effects, but rather of our being loving and merciful “neighbors” to those wounded and left on the side of the road.” (Ibid)
While I wouldn’t recommend a tonsillectomy just to understand the lesson of being “voiceless,” the takeaway is worth remembering. Each day, we are given the opportunity to give voice to the voiceless. Each day, we are given the opportunity to build a “culture of encounter.” Let us rise to the challenge!
“The Servant Song” by David Haas