This was originally written while I was serving in the US Peace Corps. Of course, these opinions are my own and do not reflect those of the US Government or of the Peace Corps.
As adults, we have become so accustomed to speaking that we scarcely notice when we do it. With ease, we narrate our actions, explain our plans, and express our emotions. Superficial and deep thoughts emerge second nature, spoken often without formal consideration.
But these words we take for granted, spewing about like discarded shells to sunflower seeds, are far more crucial to our day-to-day lives than we realize. My first few weeks in Macedonia have illuminated the power of words – and conversely, the seemingly unscalable barrier constructed by the absence of words. I came here speaking none of the language, and, though in time I will learn, the process is slow and long. Currently the burden of most of my communication is borne by others. My needs are met because another acts as an interpreter or because someone anticipates my needs and gracefully accommodates for my weakness.
Daily my host family explains, asks, exclaims, and jokes, and I stand mute – speechless, staring, smiling, while words burn inside, clamoring to reach my lips. Today, as I waited outside the school for my tutorial, three children approached. I offered my typical “Zdravo,” and attempted to carry on a brief conversation. As so many of my conversations do, this one ended in my saying, “Ne razbiram” (I don’t understand) and shrugging my shoulders helplessly as I sat near them in silence.
Never before have I found myself in such a position, and thus never before have I come face to face with the weight words contribute to my perceived substance. The image I typically carry of myself is a strong one. I believe I possess valuable thoughts and contributions. I enter conversations as a robust debater and quick-witted responder. I expect that I will impact a conversation and that others will remember me after an interaction. Here in Macedonia, however, rather than being an actor at center stage, I am a prop, noted and then overlooked. At best I am a conversation piece. At worst a nuisance. Lately I have seen myself as I assume my Macedonian contacts see me – boring, unstimulating, and unintelligent. I feel embarrassed, self-conscious, impotent.
It is a shocking reality that the self-image I carry can so drastically alter based on one factor: words. This thought process has hammered on my psyche this week, filling me with questions and doubts. Could I not offer more in America, where I speak the language? What am I doing here when there are many unemployed who could potentially fill the role I’m trying to fill? Could this two years be a waste of time? Perhaps these concerns touch on the truth and I could make a greater impact elsewhere. Or perhaps these are lies I am swallowing down with the ayvar.
After my interaction with these children, I observed a co-volunteer in a similar situation. I watched as she, like I had done, tried to speak and then ran out of words. At this point, however, she continued to smile, laughed at herself, and ultimately began playing soccer with the children. As far as I can see, the children did not mind that she could not speak to them in depth.
Years from now they will not remember what they asked her or mock her lack of response. However, they might remember that soccer game. They may recall that an American girl came to their small town and showed an interest. That a 20-something took time out of her day to interact; that she valued them.
The longer I am here the more I realize that this is the purpose of my service. Many of us came into the Peace Corps expecting to make noticeably important world impacts – impacts we could see, measure, and revel in. The thought of measuring our impacts through smiles? Come on, that’s something for a Dr. Seuss book.
But now, suddenly, a smile has immense value. A hand gesture, overlooked before, is now the only communication that makes sense. In the end, relationships are founded on so much more than words. Yes, ultimately verbal communication is necessary, but maybe not to the extent I unconsciously assumed. In a way, I realize the relative shallowness of my dependence on words. Is the human spirit not connected by more than vocal utterances? Can I not meaningfully interact with others without shared language and agreed-upon semantics? Of course I can. Of course we all can.
I will be thrilled when I can carry on a verbal conversation with my Macedonian friends. But for now, when I, as I so often do, find myself without words, I will look at the situation differently. No longer do I consider myself voiceless. I now look at each interaction as an opportunity to express love to others – no words required.