I haven’t been back to Nicaragua since last February. Circumstances there just haven’t warranted a trip. Ten months seems like a long time when I look at the calendar, but it’s more like a lifetime when I consider how much Spanish language ability I’ve lost during that time. (It’s loss that I could ill afford; I have referenced my Spanish language frustrations here in past entries.) It’s true what they say: if you don’t use it, you lose it. Over the years, I struggled to understand everything that was being said in conversations taking place around me; now I seem to be pretty well lost. The loss of ability to converse, to understand, to explain, to empathize, is a disappointing loss of hope on my part to ever be able to speak with Nicaraguans in their own language.
It strikes me that I may not be the only one.
The U.S. government finds itself in shutdown mode once more. This particular episode seems destined to be of longer duration than the 3- day closing earlier this year or the 16 days experienced in 2013, with the President alternatively claiming “the mantle of responsibility” for himself and blaming Democrats for obstructionism. The Democrats in return have folded their arms and claimed “no money for a wall.” On this, the ninth day of the current closure, the sides are not speaking. They seem to have lost their ability to speak with one another in a common language of compromise. (Something that members of government are charged with doing, by the way.)
Meanwhile, as I bemoan the shrinking opportunity for me to hear and understand Nicaraguans, it’s clear that Nicaraguans are suffering from a similar sort of loss. Theirs is not the loss of words- there have been plenty from both sides of the current impasse- but rather the loss of peace, security, and, in some cases, livelihoods. In a country which already faces immense difficulties of poverty, natural disasters, economic limitations and a history of international intrusions, the loss of meaningful national dialogue is nothing short of tragedy. It’s as though the two sides are speaking different languages.
To complicate matters, we live in an age of technology-centered communication, one which seductively encourages the impersonal use of digits in lieu of voices. Tweets attempt to tell us what to believe as true. E-mails provide shelter to type things we might never consider saying in person. Social media permits the replication and amplification of sometimes false or misleading information. We are told that the digital age should be an assist to language and communications everywhere, yet the modern-day record tells a different story of alienation, mistrust and a growing distance between ourselves and “others,” in locales all over the world.
As a result, perhaps truth and understanding have become qualities that we can only know for personally. Maybe I can come to know Nicaraguan partners only on the basis of shared conversation, face-to-face, Spanish-to-Spanish (if I ever get good enough). Perhaps in this country, the tweets of a compulsive prevaricator have to be disregarded and we must access ideas of substance from more reliable sources. And the claims of either an autocrat or a protestor require affirmation by sources we know and trust and with whom we have spoken. In short, what we know to be true has to come from discourse and discernment through common language If our words have no meaning, then they are no more than empty sounds.
The quality of my Spanish non-fluency diminishes even further with lack of use. Likewise, the quality of our language- our ability to communicate effectively with fellow human beings- diminishes when not exercised regularly. Contrary to some modernists, language does matter, whether it’s the diction, the context or the grammar that make up our best efforts to let another human being know our truth.
It’s a new year. In what is surely a great irony, I pray for the opportunity to return to Nicaragua and to display my utter lack of Spanish language skills. It may be painful but it places me face-to-face with others who also deeply wish to share what they have to teach, what they know as their reality. Here in the U.S., I hope that the men and women entrusted with bipartisan and compromise governance of our country belatedly recognize the damage that their lack of common language is doing to this nation. In Nicaragua, I long for a peaceful resolution to the tensions which have ripped apart that country in ways too terrible to imagine even a year ago.
In every case, hope for healing begins in the expression and meaning of our words, and whether they are shared with any measure of both honesty and compassion….