Sighs Too Deep For (Using Our) Words

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” –Paul, in his letter to the Romans

I’ll admit that I don’t always understand or appreciate St. Paul, but sometimes he’s alright. “Sighs too deep for words.” There is something—Paul calls it the Spirit but the name’s not so important—there is something that helps us in our weakness or in our bafflement or in times when words fall short. And that something, call it what you will, speaks through feeble and unintelligible expressions—sighs, groans, bouts of sobbing and then finally exasperated silence. Paul says all of that is helpful, even more helpful than words.

These words of Paul, of course, are not true, not even close. Even the most socially inept pre-schoolers can tell you that you’re supposed to “use your words.” Because without words we can’t really get anywhere. Maybe you’re angry or disappointed or you need to cry for a while, but don’t think that’s helping anyone. We need to know “what’s wrong?” or “what happened?” and those aren’t the sorts of things we can know until you put the feeling into words. Helpful sighs? No. Words are helpful; use your words.

And yet, Paul might be onto something when he speaks of “sighs too deep for words.” It is true that words, although generally helpful, are not always accurate. You try to match words to a sigh, or really to any other expression of feeling, and almost immediately you have to say, “No, that’s not it.” Words only seem to describe part of the feeling, or you find that words give the feeling a discernible shape but only by witling away at the fullness of the thing. Words are helpful, even if reductive, because they render something we can work with. But there’s often a sense in which the thing we can work with isn’t very much like the original thing, the feeling, that we started with. And what’s lost in all of this “using our words” is that oftentimes the meaning of a cry is in the crying. The meaning of a sigh or a cry or some other expression of what we call feeling is contained most fully in the expression itself, and when we use words to “get somewhere” something is lost.

So there are “sighs too deep for words” and they are true but they are not terribly useful, at least not useful in the way we normally think of usefulness. All of which is frustrating, all of which leaves us in a sort of existential and social predicament because we want simultaneously to express ourselves truthfully but also to be understood by those around us. And to live with this predicament feels sometimes like being drawn in opposite directions, towards conflicting poles that represent two different ways of communicating and forming meaning. Let’s call the two poles Expressive and Descriptive.

There is sometimes an obvious, plain connection between expressions and descriptions. Like if you were to stub your toe and then wince/grimace/curse-under-your-breath. I ask “what happened?” You say “I stubbed my toe.” And then that’s that. We can both assume that the stubbed toe produced pain produced the expression, and (unless we want to get into a mostly pointless philosophical exercise) we can also agree that we share a common understanding of what you experienced when you stubbed your toe. In other words, subjectivity isn’t really a consideration when trying to match up expression, meaning, and description. I typically don’t assume that you have some sort of privileged access to the sort of experience we are both describing, the stubbed toe. We can both describe that sort of simple, painful feeling without worrying that we are diminishing the experience by matching it to words.

But most experiences aren’t nearly that simple. What’s it like to lose a loved one? What’s it like to have your heart broken? Suddenly the question “What happened?” isn’t really adequate to the task of matching experience with description.  “What happened?” scratches the surface or maybe provides a starting point, but there’s a lot more to be said, and the most characteristic and important parts of the experience can’t be conveyed with strictly descriptive language.

A couple of months ago I read a blog post written by an employee of Macy’s or some other department store. She works behind one of those glass display units where they keep expensive things like the perfume, and she recounts that it is mostly dull. But she started to notice, maybe once or twice a week, that someone would approach the glass display cases and then ask to smell a particular scent.  They would smell the fragrance and then they would start to cry. It happened somewhat often. “Can I sample Polo?” and then tears. What’s happening? One day a customer says, unprompted, “that’s what my dad used to wear.”

That’s descriptive. It also doesn’t tell you much. You know that scents can bring memories and memories carry tears, but if you see someone crying after sampling a scent and they say “that’s what my dad used to wear,” then you don’t actually know anything about the meaning or content of the expression carried by their tears.

There’s a sense in which the meaning of a cry, the full meaning, is in the crying. The meaning, the content of the expression is known very well by the one who cries but there’s no way to state it simply or descriptively for an outsider, at least not in the same way that you can exhaust the personal, subjective meaning of a yelp when you say “I stubbed my toe.”

And this, basically, is why it’s difficult to be a person–because feelings are often nebulous but descriptions, good descriptions, are precise. We want others to know our feelings the way that we know them, but the qualities of feeling and communication set up a game where we’re trying to describe a nebulous thing precisely. We’re trying to create impressionist ink blots with fine-tipped pens.

What’s fortunate, though, for you and for me, is that the expressive and descriptive poles pull us back and forth along a sort of spectrum. There are spaces for communication that lie in between the personal/expressive/subjective and the shared/descriptive/objective.  And it’s in those spaces–the spaces of visual art, music, poetry–that we can try to match experiential knowing with experiential communication. That’s how I’d theorize art and it’s also more or less how I would tend to theorize religion. Both are the attempts to communicate and share the sorts of experiential knowledge that can’t be captured by more precise or objective attempts at communication.

Paul says that there’s a Spirit that can speak for us, pray for us, help us when we can’t find the words. Because words fail. Words are sometimes partial and limiting and deceptive. Our words, even our best words, are frail; they can’t hold the fullness of an expression when what’s really needed is a sigh too deep for words or a cry that reveals its meaning only in the crying.

Use your words? Yes, sometimes, if you can. But you should know that your words–your literal, objective, descriptive words–all of those words will prove themselves useless just as soon as you need to say something truly important. What you’ll need instead is a story or a poem or a song–something a little bit nebulous but true precisely because of its nebulousness. And before the story or the poem or song–before any of that’s even a possibility and before you know what they might be trying to express–before all of that is the Spirit and a sigh.


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