When words fail me

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde: A man who always had something to say and said it well. Image courtesy of Napoleon Sarony and Wikimedia Commons.

As a professional communicator, I use words to craft a message and to tailor that message to appeal to my audience. I’m lucky this way, because I can pick and choose the words I think are most suitable and play around with them until just the right note is hit.

But sometimes in my life, there have been occasions — some comic, some not — where my eloquence takes a hike and I’m rendered speechless. Years ago, my parents and I took my neighbor’s toddlers to our house in the country for a weekend trip. I was playing hide-and-seek with my neighbor’s kids while my parents were fixing dinner. The youngest, M., went out to the porch, climbed onto the sofa, hid her head (and ONLY her head) under a pillow, and hollered, “I’m hidden! Come and find me!” She was utterly oblivious to the fact that the rest of her was COMPLETELY visible.

You’ve got to love kid logic. I laughed so hard that I couldn’t speak, my legs gave out and I fell on the floor.

Another time, I was working on a web page for a local college and the person responsible for putting it up and linking it to the rest of the college’s webpage informed me out of the blue that he was leaving the area. I had no inkling. I remember this incident vividly because I understood for the first time what it means to be rendered speechless. I literally couldn’t talk for about a minute or two, I was so astonished. Weird.

As human beings and as bloggers, we use words in so many ways — to amuse, educate, comfort, entertain, inform, set limits, woo and admonish. And that’s just for starters. I wonder how many words we read, write and hear in a lifetime? Now there’s a good subject for some professionals to study.

One of my most memorable experiences involved no words at all. The day after the ’95 Oklahoma City bombing, I stood in front of a newspaper vending machine, gazing at a copy of my local paper on display inside the machine. The front page featured a photo of the Murrah Building, massively destroyed by Timothy McVeigh’s bomb. An elderly gentleman came up beside me to see what I was looking at. We stared at the photo, looked at each other and stared at the photo again. And then the elderly man shuffled away, shaking his head in disgust at what human beings are capable of doing to each other.

No words were needed. None were wanted.



Filed under Writing

26 responses to “When words fail me

  1. travelrat

    There are occasions when ‘I don’t know what to say!’ is much better than an empty platitude, no matter how well meant.

    • I agree. with all the power that words have to affect someone, maybe silence can be the best answer sometimes. Who among us hasn’t heard a story or two about someone deeply affected by words spoken to them when they were younger?

  2. I am better with writing words than speaking. There are many times when I cannot think of what to say. Your example of the 1995 bombing is one.

  3. I love words, but sometimes, I too am left speechless. Dianne

  4. Yes, I agree with that other comment. Sometimes silence speaks louder than words.

  5. I remember that day long ago. I was not far away just over the border in Kansas. I was stunned as I heard it over the radio while driving toward my next customer. It was a day of reflection. Usually when I visit memorials for different tragedies, I am very silent as I think about what happened.

  6. Val

    Curious examples you’ve given of the bomb and the child…sets my mind reeling a bit. Not sure I’m speechless, though.

  7. 9/11 was one of those times for me. I was off from work that day and stood in front of the TV most of the time speechless. Unfortunately, those events caused me to return to work that evening and the next to cope with the results (I worked a religious organization and needed to get security and provide extra events for our congregation), so I did not have downtime for my own reflections.

  8. So much noise these days. (There are many studies/data about the number of words people use – and it is interesting to look at the breakdown.)
    Sometimes when words fail, it would be good if some would be speechless – rather than spewing emotional garbage.

    Respectful silence can say a lot more.
    (hope this makes some sense)
    Timeless post with great insight.

  9. Spot-on post, short and simply put. I agree with the general feeling here that respectful/wise silence works best at times.
    I’ve recently found myself (in silence) pondering my own speechlessness, and I’ve gladly found I am capable of not saying “just anything” (or, rather, avoiding an empty platitude, as someone wisely remarked).
    Exercising silence upon the death of our beloved ones is, I find, making room for true reflection. Just as an example. I’d rather be thought about for a lifetime than spoken about for ten days and thus condemned to subsequent oblivion; btw there’s a piece on my blog I wrote ironically on that -sadly enough for the readers of this one, it is in Spanish. Those who can read my beautiful language are more than welcome to have a look at “Receta Para un Fantasma” 😉

  10. I hope “When Words Fail Me” is not the end of your blog. Please continue.

  11. What a lovely thoughtful blog post, Editor. This would be a good writer’s prompt, to remember when words failed us. One time that I remember being speechless is when our four-year-old decided to glue magazines and other objects to the chairs and tables in our living room. Words failed completely. You can imagine.

  12. I know what you mean about listening to the sounds of silence. It’s vivid in my mind when our English teacher, with teary eyes told us that John F. Kennedy had been shot and was presumed dead in Dallas, Texas.

    The whole classroom was petrified and speechless for a long time. How much I don’t remember, but I do recall there was a collective grasp for oxygen and a loss of words in the room.

    Yep, been there, done that.



  13. Too many conversations take the form of one person constantly trying to get others to accept, solely, his/her point of view. It’s so much better when, through the give and take, good ideas become better. That sometimes requires moments of (hopefully comfortable) silence while new thoughts are integrated; modified.


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