There is a fine little poem by an American poet, Lee Yung Lee, about a relationship between a father and a son. I read it in church sometimes on Father’s Day. Entitled, A Story, it runs like this:
Sad is the man who is asked for a story
and can’t come up with one.
His five year-old son waits in his lap:
“Not the same story baba!
Not the same one, a new one!”
The man rubs his chin and scratches his ear.
In a room full of books
in a world full of stories
he can recall not one.
And soon he thinks
this boy will give up on his father.
And already the man lives far ahead
he sees the day the boy will go away.
“Don’t go,” he says, “hear the alligator story again.
Hear the angel story one more time.
You love the spider story!
You laugh at that spider.
Let me tell it!”
But the boy is already packing his shirts
he is looking for his keys.
“Are you a god,” the man screams, “that I am mute before you?
Am I a god, that I should never disappoint you?”
But truly the boy is still here.
“Please, baba, a story!”
It is an emotional rather than a logical question.
It is an earthily, not a heavenly one.
And it posits
that a boy’s supplications
and a father’s love
add up to silence.
Lee’s poem is about the inarticulateness of a father before his son. But the poem would read just as well in terms of other relationships: mother-daughter, mother-son, father-daughter, or even wife-husband, or friend-friend. One person’s supplication, a child or adult, and another’s love too often add up to silence and disappointment. In the end, except for rare occasions, we all end up not really finding the words we need to speak to each other in our relationships. We are all inarticulate in love, painfully so.
Daily we find ourselves sitting across from someone where the situation calls for a new story and we can only stutter. There’s supplication in the other person’s eyes and in the situation itself: Please a new story, not the old one! But that supplication and our best intentions add up to silence. We are mute before each other and so we talk sports scores, shopping, neighborhood gossip, fashion, the weather, the latest T.V. show, anything, except what would need to be spoken.
It begins already when our children sit on our laps as infants and we are unsure of what to say, though perhaps then it is easier to find words to express our love. But it gets harder as they grow up and their persons and lives become complex as they wrestle with restlessness, sexuality, and their need to separate themselves from us. Then we begin to feel unsure and we can’t find the words we need to speak or we find that we cannot speak the words we like to speak. We agonize as we lose our closeness to our children. They begin to push away the old words and we find that, if we keep speaking those words, they push us away with the words.
But their supplication doesn’t go away, they need us more than ever and they need to hear certain things from us. But what? The words we find are not words that they want to hear. All that tension is ultimately a supplication: A new story, not the old one. Tell me a new story!
And the same thing happens too inside of all our close relationships. We come to critical times, a friend is sick in the hospital, a colleague is getting married, someone is moving away, a family member is undergoing a divorce, a friend is losing her job, and, again, we find ourselves painfully inarticulate, searching for words and not finding them. And so, as is evident in so many dreadful toasts at weddings, we avoid speaking to the occasion altogether or we speak words that do anything except honor the occasion.
But we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves. We aren’t Gods. And if we were as articulate as Lee-Yung Lee we might ask instead: “Are you a god that I should be mute before you? Am I a god, that I should never disappoint you?”
But the supplication still beckons and so we succumb to the temptation to repeat the time-worn stories, the usual bad jokes at the wedding reception, the safe banter that moves things along: “Let’s talk about last night’s game! Let me tell you what happened at work! Have you heard this joke?” But we sense that, figuratively, everyone’s packing to leave: “Don’t go!” we say desperately, “hear the alligator story again!” But they’re all still here, begging for a new story: “Please, baba, a story!”
In the Foreword to The Black Prince, Iris Murdoch writes: “I have known, for long periods, the torture of a life without self-expression.” Nowhere is this torture more felt than when we stand before our loved ones.