It’s been another hard weekend to watch the news. A Saudi journalist is missing. A deadly car crash in New York. Scientists warn, yet again, that we must make drastic change to save our planet. The senate confirmed, and new Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in.
It is a sad realization that I have reached the point where the majority of news no longer surprises or provokes me. I listen and read with a sense of curiosity about the world and a responsibility to be informed. But the truth is that it has been quite a while since current events shocked or astonished me, for better or for worse. Things happen, I hear about them, and the world somehow seems to continue spinning without needing to wait for my reaction.
Every time I turn on the TV, browse social media, or read the most recent alert on my phone, something has happened, I feel reaction time slow, and my loss for words become even more profound.
I hear this response from others, as well. A sense of apathy, disappointment, resignation, and uncertainty seems to have settled upon many of my friends and acquaintances. There’s nothing to do, there’s nothing to say. We just continue on with our lives.
And yet, others have the completely opposite reaction. Every alert, every event, gives way to anger, rage, fear, and anxiety. Rather than muted expressions, they react at full volume – yelling at a screen, shouting aloud in frustration, screaming at those who disagree with them.
More and more it seems as though our world has been split into two, and only two, styles of communication: silence and uproar. When was the last time were we able to just talk with each other? What would we be able to accomplish if we did?
This week’s Torah portion gives us a glimpse at the possibilities. Parashat Noach is usually famous for the narrative of Noah, a righteous man in his generation, who builds an ark and saves his family and two of every kind of animal from an epic flood. But after the dove finds an olive branch and a number of generations go by, we are told that there was a time when “Everyone on earth had the one language and the same words” (Genesis 11:1).
This uni-language generation traveled new lands together, founded cities together, and set lofty goals together. In cooperation with each other they were able to dream and build a tower reaching to the heavens which would forever serve as a reminder of what teamwork can accomplish. God sees that having one language has allowed humanity to achieve great things, and even remarks “that nothing will be beyond their reach” (Genesis 11:7).
Of course, like so many of our current events this ancient story doesn’t have a happily every after. God, nervous about potential human accomplishment, scatters the people and confuses their language so that they would no longer be able to communicate and achieve great things.
Was that the last time humanity was able to work together? Was that the last time we were able to talk with one another?
Since that great tower, how many fights, disagreements, injuries, and wars came about because we couldn’t understand each other, because we didn’t have the language to express ourselves, because we weren’t able to see someone else’s point of view? How much could have been avoided if we sought to rediscover our universal language, rather than wallow in our disparate experiences? What would that conversation sound like?
In my opinion, it would sound like empathy.
Our difficulty in communication doesn’t come from speaking Spanish, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, English, or Russian. We have dictionaries and Google Translate for that. What we’ve lost is the emotional appreciation underlying everything we hear and say. We’ve lost our comfort expressing difficult emotions, our ability to say, “I’m sad,” “I’m hurt,” or “I’m angry,” without needing to justify those feelings. We’ve lost our ability to hear someone else express themselves without becoming defensive or offended. We’ve lost our ability to be empathic, to sit together and feel everything together.
A skyscraper was not the greatest achievement of the generation that built the Tower of Babel. It was not the tower itself that made God nervous. No, their greatest achievement was being able to speak with one another, to express themselves, and their certainty that they would be heard and understood. Their universal language wasn’t spoken or written, it was emotional. It was their empathy that led them to great achievement.
Imagine hearing the news of the world without being numb or explosive. Imagine our national debates and conversations existing somewhere in-between, where every expression is heard and accepted, even if it is different than your own. Imagine what problem solving and goal setting would sound like if it was done with the respect and compassion that translate emotion into a universal language.
Imagine that world.
Now imagine what you can to do to build it.
Our language and conversations may have been confused for the last few millennia, but they don’t need to stay that way. We can wait before we speak. We can listen first. We can force ourselves to hear different points of view. We can learn about those who are different from us. We can ask questions before making accusations.
We can, each of us, do something to remember how to speak to each other. And, in doing so, each of us can place a brick in the new tower that shows how great achievement comes through teamwork. We can learn to converse in a way that brings us closer to God, and to each other. We can raise each other up, even if someone tries to knock us down. We can, one word at a time.