Saying Things

Two things are crazy about humans. 

1. We talk a lot.

2. We’re afraid to talk at all.  

I teach courses where people are required to say things.  The students open their textbook—O’Hair’s  Pocketguide to Public Speaking—as if it were a message in a bottle, as if it were something you turn over on the beach with a stick.  The pages blow open to a discussion of how studying public speaking will help you “gain a vital life skill” and “learn practical and transferable knowledge” and “find new opportunities for engagement.”  Reading that is like finding a dead fish in the sand.

And then, comes the header: “Managing Speech Anxiety.”  The book reassures the reader that everybody feels speech anxiety.  “It turns out that feeling nervous is not only normal but desirable!” This reads like death therapy.  It sounds like those experts who, in an effort to help a person die composedly, say things like, “Death is normal.  Death is just a point on the continuation of the circle of existence.  Nothing to be afraid of.”  But it’s hard not to ask whether anxiety about death indicates more than a psychological facts about ourselves. Same thing goes for stage fright: maybe isn’t just an interior condition that we can therapeutically control.  Maybe it’s an indicator of the wondrousness and fearsomeness of human exchange. 

But we keep saying stuff anyway, nervous or not.  We say things, nodding vigorously, studiously averting our gaze from the ocean that surrounds our lives.  At any time, a tidal wave can rise—and we and all our saying, saying, saying are borne away. 

(Put that in your pocketguide and smoke it.)

Maybe instead of a Pocketguide to Public Speaking, I should assign Augustine’s Confessions.  There, he gets at something like stage fright when he says,

What does anyone who speaks of You really say?  Yet woe betide those who fail to speak, while the chatterboxes go on saying nothing. 

What does anyone who speaks of You really say?  And yet we have to speak, even at the risk of saying nothing.  But what Augustine wishes to address is not out there somewhere, always threatening our shorelines.  What he speaks into is more like a great onshore wind, a pneuma enfolding us, bearing us up.

So, yes, Walker Percy was right: nobody’s crazier than humans.  We talk and text and tweet even when we don’t have to, because, somehow, we do have to.  We say things even when we’re nervous, and because we’re nervous.  It’s just the best possible news for us gabby folk that in the speech of God, we live and move and have all our little saying.

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2 comments on “Saying Things

  1. mb19339 says:

    I love this – wish I was in your speech class as an undergrad! Reminds me of Till We Have Faces.

  2. Leah says:

    First things first, I really appreciate the way you write, Dr. Mattson.

    Second things second (?), “put that in your pocketbook and smoke it.” LOVE IT!

    Third things third (I guess), I had a hard time with this section of the reading. I am also in Comm 101 and wondered about whether this person was correct in saying that it is always what we desire. This being said, I don’t think it’s bad for us, but if you know you desire to be frightened it, is it ever really genuine? I’m not sure I’m making any sense.

    Fourth things fourth, praise be to God for our gifts of communication, awkward or not.

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