At a Loss for Words!

The coronavirus pandemic was defined genetically as COVID-19 on January 14, 2020. In only four months, millions have been infected, hundreds of thousands died, and the global economy collapsed. The rapidity of the pandemic is best described with words: surprise, shock and disorientation, which reminds us of the phrase: “at a loss for words.”

Our loss for words has required an immediate adoption of the idiomatic glossary of the pandemic: self-regulated quarantines—shelter-in-place; people categorized as ‘essential’—front-line workers. We all now understand how to use the verb which is now a brand name, ‘Zoom’. Regardless of  titles, salaries or image, our professions, careers, and jobs were  instantaneously transformed into virtual and digital realities or they ceased! Even the most famous celebrities from the arts or sports were denied their stages and fields. All of them have lost the contexts from which we heard them talk to us; and their silence confirms that we are at a loss for words.

World leaders were at a loss for the language of disease, epidemiology, and public health.

We listen to the statistics in disbelief, fear and anguish which makes our search for words even more difficult. We try to find the ‘facts’ but all too often get confused by the distortions, commentaries, or conspiracies that are being spread even as equally shocked and disoriented media personalities are at a loss for words.

Medical research has taught us that when the brain is traumatically injured by a stroke, gun shot or other severe damage to the head, a person’s loss of words might mean ‘aphasia’ which impairs our ability to use language critically. Former United States Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords who was shot, required time to recover from the wound, surgery and the aphasia which denied her the ability to return to her previous language facility.

Now after only four months, we, too, must admit, that we have been traumatized, an experience that leaves us fumbling to explain the meaning. Our crisis culture requires the same patience that every person surviving the virus needs for their recovery. We must acknowledge that our collective communal language skills have been injured by this global trauma of disease and economic devastation.

The best example of our loss for words is the completely inadequate use of ‘new’ to describe our imagined understanding of ‘normal’.  ‘New’ utterly fails to describe the next phase of life beyond these first months of pandemic. Whenever that next phase begins, it will not be better, improved, more valuednew, as compared to the ‘old’ period. We need the most critically appropriate label/tag for our next reality: Covid 19-normal. This term actually describes the reality in which we must cope with every life decision even as there is a virus but neither a vaccine or a cure. We are not going to engage in a new-normal, because all of us will now be forced to manage our lives as determined by the coronavirus, hence the only honest description of such a period is, Covid 19-normal.

Even ‘normal’ has been stained and needs more explanations. The term means usual or appropriate, but can we use ‘normal’ to express usual until we are not afraid of infection and death.  Whatever we once experienced as normal prior to January 14, 2020 has been swept into an inaccessible category of history. Maybe, after enough time, we will use ‘normal’ with an * that provides a lengthy detailed historical context.

Abraham Joshua Heschel reflected on the essential importance of words. “Reverence for words—an awareness of the wonder of words, the mystery of words….by stressing the sensitivity to words, its [language] goal must be the sanctification of human speech.” If we cannot even use an honest word to describe this moment, then we are failing each other in a search for any shared human community. Our dark political divisions, our intentional use of fear as a political tool, our addiction to endless media speculations all confirm Heschel’s prescient evaluation, “One of the major symptoms of the general crisis existent in our world today is our lack of sensitivity to words.”

We must consciously renew our sensitivity for the words needed to respond to the continuing challenge of the coronavirus pandemic. Just as those who have experienced traumatic injuries require time, support and help to recover skills they once took for granted; now, we too must acknowledge our loss for words. Our recovery requires that we strengthen our abilities to meaningfully communicate. Let us turn to one another for help in finding the words we need to live in a still unknown tomorrow.

[Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Religion in a Free Society” in “Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence” Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (January 1, 1955), Kindle Edition p 259]

About the Author
Joseph has linked his congregational rabbinate and academic careers with interfaith relations, contemporary philosophy, and serving Jews who are sometimes ignored. He is retired in Rio de Janeiro where he teaches, writes and volunteers his rabbinic time in communities without rabbis. He has written "What Am I Missing? Questions About Being Human"
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