Beyond Words

April 24th, 2023

“Those who know do not talk. Those who talk do not know.” – Tao Te Ching

I care for our toddler grandson in the early morning hours. Generally, the boy wakes up in a relatively good mood, and we get along well. For a two-year-old, Asher is quite strong verbally. He has difficulty pronouncing some words (he has trouble saying the letter “L”), but he can usually make himself understood. He asks good questions, and he speaks using whole sentences. He has a rather large vocabulary for someone his age. He knows a few words that he probably shouldn’t, but that’s my fault.

Yesterday he did not communicate well. He was feeling under the weather with a head cold, and he was justifiably irritable. It was hard for me to know what he wanted. I asked him,

“Do you want some milk? (I usually have a warm bottle ready for him when he gets up in the morning).

Asher frowned and shook his head.

We went to the refrigerator. Asher opened it and gazed inside. I asked him,

“How about some blackberries?”

He scowled and said, “No.”

“You want an orange?”


“You like grapes. You want some grapes?”


“An apple?”

“NO! NO! NO!”

“Well, what do you want?”

At that moment, he had a total melt down. Normally, I would have told him, “Use your words.”, but we were well beyond that point. Tears were rolling down his face, and he was crying uncontrollably. Eventually, I just put a small bunch of grapes on a plate for him and left them on a chair where he could reach them. When he calmed down, he found the grapes and started munching on them.

Somebody could say that he is just a little boy, and as he gets older, he will be able to express himself clearly. Maybe. I know a lot of adults who can’t always use their words effectively. I am one of them.

As a writer, I am accustomed to using words all the time. Some people think that I use them well. Maybe I do. I am acutely aware of the power of words, and also of their limitations. Words are often clumsy and inadequate. Sometimes, when I want to say something that is very important to me, the words come out as gibberish. Even if I say exactly what I intended, the listener or reader might not understand. Some things simply cannot be expressed verbally.

Monday I was at a funeral. An old man was burying his only son. As the father watched his son’s coffin being slowly lowered into the ground, he convulsively sobbed. His wordless expression of grief was only momentary, but it was eloquent. The man had no need to tell any of the other mourners that he loved his boy. We all could feel and hear the intense emotion in his voice.

Words are not only insufficient during bad times. Words are also a bit lame at joyous moments. When my oldest son, Hans, came home from his deployment in Iraq, I hugged him. What could I have said that would have more meaningful? What words would have been more welcoming?

There are numerous ways to for people to reveal their feelings. Music is one of them. Who is not stirred by the opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony? One of my favorite albums is called “Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar”, all instrumental pieces from Frank Zappa. At Zen practice we chant prayers and sutras in Korean. I don’t know any Korean. I don’t need to know the words. Somehow, I still get the message. It’s the same when I listen to the kirtan chanting at the Sikh Temple. The meaning is in the music.

There are other ways to communicate: painting, sculpture, weaving, and dance. Mystics from various religious traditions have used these techniques to express their visions and ecstasies. They simply can’t explain their experiences in words.

Asher can communicate with me most of the time. If he can’t, it’s not his fault.

Words are not enough.

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