Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

The Power of Communication

Mixing up a Sunday breakfast smoothie, my wife Ellen clinks her spoon again and again against her glass. At first I think she's just stirring her drink, but the clinking goes on until I look up. "Thought you'd never notice," she says with a sly smile.

Our cat Bobbie stalks out of the bedroom and glares at me, meowing in an agrieved tone. Obediently I arrange the bed pillows the way she likes them; she climbs up and promptly goes to sleep.

On the way to the park we pass a newsstand. "SUPREME COURT OKAYS OBAMACARE," shouts a headline. We pass friends and neighbors; some we nod to, some we wave at, and with a few we stop and chat. A man strides along the sidewalk whistling "Oh Susanna."

In the park sparrows cheep and flutter their feathers in a puddle. A starling lands among them and makes theatening motions with its beak; the sparrows fly away. In the dog run, a black and brown spotted mutt picks up his ball, carries it to its mistress, drops it, then looks up hoping she'll throw it for him to chase. She's talking on her cell phone, so the dog wanders off. Seeing a handsome golden retriever, he runs over, woofs cheerfully, then crouches down, forepaws extended, in an invitation to play. The golden accepts the proffer of friendship, and in moments the two are tussling in mock combat.

We find a shady spot on a semi-circle of benches. A songbird hidden in a tree warbles a liquid melody. Beside us an elderly couple talk softly in Chinese. Teenaged boys and girls laugh and flirt. A woman by herself reads a book; another writes in her journal. A young man wears a t-shirt with a picture on John Lennon on the front; on the back tall letters spell "IMAGINE." A little girl whines at her big brother, "Lemme use the skateboard." He pointedly ignores her. She sticks out her tongue. He shrugs and skates away with a "Ha ha on you!" flourish. Ellen and I look at each other and laugh. On nearby benches a band of Spanish men with congas, claves, and cowbells play salsa rhythms that float seductively through the summer air.

What do all these daily sights and sounds have in common? They're all  attempts to communicate.

We sentient beings, including the cat and birds and dogs in my little word picture, try to communicate because:

We're each unique.

We look out at the world from inside ourselves.

We find it hard to describe the experience of being ourselves.

We find it hard to understand what others experience inside themselves.

"There's no art to find the mind's construction in the face," complains King Duncan in Macbeth. From our own insides, we know how many random hopes and fears flit through us and disappear, thoughts which we seldom tell each other, partly because this multi-threaded mental flow is not easily put into words — though James Joyce gave it the old college try!

To survive we must in a rough-and-ready way connect with other people, but it's hard to know whom to trust. Lies may be told so well and the truth so badly that the law relies on juries of twelve people in hope that a dozen guesses will approximate the truth. Lovers read each other's hearts, and gamblers study an opponent's tics to tell how many aces he's holding, but still: when we observe someone with a bland expression on his or her face, we cannot know for certain what he or she is thinking, and anyone staring at our blank mugs could say the same about us.

Communication — from the Latin "cum unio," union with — is the big answer humans and many animals have come up with to break us out of lifelong solitary confinement and link us up with other beings. Communication's content, the specific information sent or received, can be of life-or-death importance, but beneath the content, there's the bond, the union with, that communication creates, whether the content is "I love you" or "I hate you."

Communication includes every language and every means we use to show other sentient beings what we are thinking and feeling inside, every attempt we make to put our minds' construction into our faces and voices and eyes and hands and bodies and clothes and pens and brushes and chisels and cameras, so that other beings can get a glimmering of what we're experiencing.

The vital need for communication hit me first at Yale when, in a freshman introductory philosophy course, Professor John Smith led us through Way to Wisdom by Karl Jaspers. Some called Jaspers (1883-1969) "the founder of German existentialism," but the bleak title doesn't convey the warmth of Jaspers modest, determined prose.

Humans live "scared and alone," Jaspers writes. They try to connect with other humans, "yet often do not understand each other...they meet and scatter...indifferent to one another." Tribes and faiths war with other tribes and faiths; people kill people to gain power; at times there seems to be "nothing but battle without hope of unity."

One light alone brightens this dark landscape: "communication" — Jaspers' italics. Communication cures loneliness, gives humans the chance to join with others "mind to mind...existence to existence." Reaching and being reached by other humans turns "merely living" into a "fulfilling life." writes Jaspers, makes possible "the loving contest which profoundly unites self and self."

Jaspers wouldn't mind living alone if he could find his way to wisdom alone, but he can't: he needs other people to become himself:

I am only in conjunction with others; alone I am nothing.

For Jaspers, philosophy is more than the love of truth; it's the love of telling the truth, putting all we learn about life into forms that other humans can understand. A few words may pop into a genius' head as he sits alone in his midnight study — "I think therefore I am" — but the notion is half-born until the genius speaks the words to a friend or writes them down with a pen and paper so they can move freely, quickly, and understandably between humans.

On page 71 Jaspers lays all his cards on the table — trumpets and a drum roll, please!

Man's supreme achievement in this world is communication from personality to personality.

What? Me knowing you is the "supreme achievement" of the human race? Greater than the Seven Wonders of the World? Greater than music, art, and science? Greater than Chartres cathedral, the plays of Shakespeare, the Great Wall of China? Yes! When I read that sentence in college, I underlined it and put a star in the margin; recently I added another underline and three exclamation marks. Jaspers, I believe, hit the nail on the head: I can know you and you can know me: yes, that is the supreme achievement of man, the richest blessing of life.

Not that communication is greater than music, art, and science; rather, communication is the goal of music, art, and science. Me and you uniting with each other through this essay — that's the pearl of great price that makes the work of writing worthwhile. If art couldn't connect us with other people, libraries, museums, theaters, and concert halls would echo emptily all year long. If when reading Tolstoy we could not cry and laugh with Tolstoy, why would we read War and Peace and Anna Karenina?

Yet like great artists in every medium, Tolstoy communicates! As we read his books, we can read Tolstoy's mind, and, guided by him, we can read the very souls of his immortal, imaginary beings. Every scrap of dialogue he reports, every drawing room he describes, every woman's heart he enters: every word Tolstoy (and Homer, Cervantes, Shakspeare, Balzac, Trollope…) writes communicates to us something of his own personality and something of the hopeful, fearful, poetic, practical, and endlessly quirky personalities of ourselves and our fellow human beings.

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Monday August 6th 2012, 2:16 AM
Comment by: tashia D. (Singapore Singapore)
Michael, so beautiful and simple. It is this simple. Thank-you for such a sweetness. Poetic and honest.
Monday August 6th 2012, 6:46 AM
Comment by: Rae (Titusville, FL)
Michal, your article on communication fills my soul and answers all my questions about writing, loving, relating, living. Almost fifty years ago my husband and I were in a church with a pastor who was, besides a man who loved God and served Christ, a genius. I'll never forget the Sunday he told his congregation of mostly married folk to talk to each other ten minutes every day.

Our pastor's suggestion came as a shock. We honestly thought we could not do it. We had talked almost non-stop when we were young and getting to know each other, but after we were married a while, we lost the motivation and the desire to connect much at all. But we gave our pastors suggestion a try. Now, all these years later we attribute most of our long marriage and the fun we have together to that small beginning.

So, right on, MIchael and I wish you continued favor as you take this ultimately important message into our needy world.
Monday August 6th 2012, 7:47 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
How simple, and SO profound!
When truth appears, it can be recognized by its uncluttered simplicity!
Wonderfully said, Michael.
Monday August 6th 2012, 10:14 AM
Comment by: MerriLynn S. (Cayce, SC)
Yes, I too think this article is a great piece of art. "In this world" it is being with and focused on others that wisdom and all the emotions imaginable will come to life inside our soul.
Yesterday, in line at the check out spending more than I should and being gone longer from home then thought without my cellphone to call home I let the mother and daughter with a few items cut infront of me. The young girl was dancing to music in her head, so being a music teacher I had to speak about her obvious love music. My assumption led to her telling her mother that it's really dance that she loves. We cahtted about how wonderful it is to dance to really cool music.
The reason I share this is because I felt so awesome all the way home and it was even hard to go to sleep because I was on some kind of emotional high. Was it a "cum unio" that gave an rush of happiness? it sure wasn't the overcooked ham in the oven. Thanks
Monday August 6th 2012, 10:17 AM
Comment by: MerriLynn S. (Cayce, SC)
Sorry for all the typos, :)
Monday August 6th 2012, 11:25 AM
Comment by: Tom B. (Primm Springs,, TN)
I knew this all along, but somehow resisted it except in spurts of need. I have heard this message in different language all my life but turned my back many times. Sometimes, at the right time we (I) need examples and definitions to reinforce the hidden knowledge that lurks within. That's why I write alone but must share!
Thanks Michael, Karl and William!
Monday August 6th 2012, 11:50 AM
Comment by: Kathy M. (Calgary Canada)
I really enjoyed reading this. I felt as though I were in the room, or park with you. You really captured the essence of the word communication; a word poorly described in many instances.
Monday August 6th 2012, 4:13 PM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Knowing you is a supreme achievement, Michael. Tashia said it beautifully. And thank you Rae for wise words and good advice.
Monday August 6th 2012, 8:01 PM
Comment by: Donna B.
Thank you. If there are better, more profound English words to say your message arrived, free of static, true in the bone, I don't know them.
Thank you.
Monday August 6th 2012, 9:22 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
A simple message yet so profound and and your writng, Michael, is so beautifully elegant. Thank you for this uplifting article.
Monday August 6th 2012, 11:58 PM
Comment by: Kathy M. (Calgary Canada)
I wanted to add that I will be seeking out your other publications - looking forward to reading more of your writing.
Friday August 10th 2012, 12:40 PM
Comment by: SmEbbers (CA)
Thank you. I enjoyed this.
Sunday August 12th 2012, 8:12 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thank you all for your warm and heartfelt comments. Feels great to write and know that others get what I'm trying to say! We're communicating, hurray!!
Sunday August 12th 2012, 9:14 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Hello Michael,
You have stated a truth here that epitomizes my grandest problem: enjoying the feeling that someone understand all the nuances and implications I have tried to express about some esoteric topic.
Maybe someday I will have the feeling you mention!
Anyway, I echo what other have said to you: thank you!
Sunday August 12th 2012, 9:16 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
sorry: "understood", not understand.
Monday August 13th 2012, 11:16 AM
Comment by: Juan Jose Hartlohner (Madrid Spain)
Enchanting and powerful piece of communication. But, let me point out that where you say: "Spanish men with congas, claves, and cowbells play salsa rhythms", you are talking of Latin-Americans or Hispanics.The noun Spanish refers only to the people of Spain (Europe). Spaniards don't play congas, claves, or cowbells. The salsa is defined as type of Latin American dance music incorporating elements of jazz and rock, in Spain we are fond of the salsa but it is a foreign rhythm to us.

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