REFLECTIONS ON VOICE
In a three way conversation this past week with Jane, her daughter Amy, who teaches drama, and myself, one of the themes that emerged was that of voice, and I found that many valuable thoughts were expressed. As a result, I thought that this week’s reflection might consider the topic of voice, and am greatly indebted to Jane and Amy for many of these thoughts.
I do like etymologies, the roots and origins of words, as a clue to the experience and feeling level within and behind the words we use. The word voice comes from the Latin vox and its verb form vocare. which means to call, to emit or send forth sound, to express from within outwardly. The word “evoke” means to call forth, to summon. Our calling from within both invites and calls forth an acknowledgment, a listening, and a response from another. The related word “vocation” means what we are called from within to be and to do.
What these roots suggest is that our voice is at once an expression of who we are and an outreach to another or others. Our voice is at once personal and relational. These aspects are illustrated in the folk tale, Rapunzel. In her loneliness, Rapunzel sings beautifully, and her voice rings out through the forest where it captivates the young man who hears it. It is the voice that comes from one’s inmost, unique self that at once expresses who we are and evokes a similar response in others. Here, too, that voice is expressed in singing. A contrasting story concerns the figure of Echo in Greek mythology. Echo is condemned only to repeat what she has heard, never to initiate conversation or engage in dialogue. Since she has no voice of her own, she gradually fades away and dies. To be fully alive, a person must find and express their own voice, tell their own story, sing their own song.
As expression and outreach, our voice may be viewed not only as summoned to express its authentic self, but as longing to be heard and acknowledged, to be recognized and listened to attentively. Voice is thus essentially relational: I cannot truly tell my story if no one hears; I cannot fully sing my song if no one listens.
But then the question arises: to what voice within myself do I listen, and to what voices of others do I listen.
There is an interesting story in the New Testament, the baptism of Jesus by John, in which a voice from the clouds proclaims: “This is my beloved son, listen to him.” A common approach envisions a booming voice barking orders from outside, but an approach from what Joseph Campbell calls inner rather than outer geography,suggests something different. In this approach, we might say that we hear many voices within us, voices of judgment, put-down, fault-finding, as well as voices of affirmation and caring. The story suggests that among these many voices within us, is the one that calls us a beloved daughter or son, and that is the voice to listen to. It tells us that the basic truth about ourselves is that we are a beloved son or daughter, that we have a fundamental worth, value, and sacredness that nothing or noone can take away; and that we are called to honour that sacredness in ourselves and others. This view is also found in the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus which tells us that there is a radiance and beauty at the heart of each of us that we may come to experience at certain moments.
The question then arises as to what are the many voices within us, both positive and negative; what is the source of these many voices; which of these voices is our own most inmost, authentic voice; how and to whom do I express that voice; how do I best express that voice, and so on.
The corresponding questions concern the voice of others, from the voice of friends in intimate conversation to the blaring voice of television commercials. I once attended a movie with a friend who averted her eyes during a scene of violence. She explained afterwards that she did not want that kind of image to work on her imagination. A similar question concerns what voices do we wish to allow to reach within and affect us, and what voices do we wish to exclude. We may also ask what are the voices to which we should listen, which we should allow to shape our feeling, imagination, and thought.
In one Peanuts cartoon, Lucy is running after Charlie Brown and threatening to pound him. He replies that if we small children cannot resolve our relatively simple problems without resorting to violence, how do we expect the larger world issues to be solved. Lucy then punches him and remarks to a friend that she had to hit him because he was beginning to make sense. In other words, we may sometimes block out voices that we need to hear and heed. These may well be the voices of those who are most vulnerable in our society. In any event, our own experience is limited and our awareness needs to be stretched and expanded by the articulated experience of others.
There are a myriad of other questions that arise on the theme of voice. Perhaps most basic is the question, expressed above, of how we discover what is our own unique authentic voice and how do we best express that voice in a way that is life-giving and life-enhancing for ourselves and others. One challenge is to allow each of the voices within us to speak, to sing their song, but let none become a soloist who drowns out all the others, and let only the beloved daughter or son be the director of this chorus.
Equally important is the matter of to what other voices we should listen, either personally, or through writings and other arts, the mass media, the so-called social media, and the like. One brief thought is that we should not be taken in by the voices that try to speak manipulatively or with hostility or to hook into our fears and anxieties. Rather we best discern and heed those voices that speak to rather than at us, and that speak with honesty and truthfulness andcompassion. At the same time, it may be helpful to try to discern the fear or hurt behind the stridently hostile voices.
As I have often said, we are transformed by what we let affect us deeply. The question then is: what or who should we or should we not allow to affect us deeply.