Middlebury

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Honorary Doctor of Letters

Aspects of Communication,
by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS
MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE

May 1976

"Communication is the translation of one's individual talents into a negotiable form. What you-and only you-have to give is transferred to other people in a form they can understand, accept and use constructively. The forms may differ but the transfer, the exchange, is the essential element always present. "

As I think back over my life and the differences in our generations, in our life­styles, in our worlds, then and now, I try to bridge those gaps and to remember what I felt in college. I was on the whole, much less sophisticated, less experienced, and probably less educated than you are now, despite the rich fields opened to me by Smith College, under President Nielson, almost 50 years ago. Many of the things I felt then I have outgrown or forgotten, but I remember vividly one remark I made that is still part of me. It was strangely prophetic. I said, "To me the most exciting thing in life is communication." I consider that sentence now over a long life of admittedly exciting events, both good and bad: romance, marriage, crossing oceans in single engined planes, flying over the Greenland Ice Cap, forced landings in deserts and arctic waters, experiments in gliding, giving birth to children, meeting death and sorrow, watching people prepare for war, or stagger back to normal life when war ended. After all this life of adventure, astonishingly, my statement of almost 50 years ago still has validity.

Communication still matters to me. That is why I am here today. At least, that is what interests me the most about this occasion. I am to talk about communication, what I think it is, and why I think it is important, and some of the difficulties in the particular and limited form of communication I practice.

Let me start out by saying what communication is not. It is not what Clarence Day once described in a moment of frustration when he said, "Most communication is like shouting through a mattress with words of one syllable." This is not what I call communication. For communication there has to be an answering voice and it doesn't have to be a shout-it can be a whisper. It is more than this, of course.

Communication embraces much more than I thought it did when I was in college. As an undergraduate, communication meant the exchange of thoughts with my fellow students, my teachers, my friends, and through books and research. It was an exciting two­way flow of ideas. The new discoveries for me then were novelists like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, poets like Rainer Maria Rilke and William Yeats and Vermont's Robert Frost. That kind of communication I still respond to when I discover new books today-different ones, of course: a new book by Joseph Campbell on myths and symbols, a new novel by Doris Lessing, or a new study of Jung or a new book on Zen or on Teilhard de Chardin, or on ecology by Rene Dubos or Barbara Ward.

But today, communication has come to have a much broader meaning for me. It seems to me the basic fabric of our lives, the fibre that joins man to man. It is not only the web of relationships that binds us together in personal life-families, marriages, friends-it is built into the structure of most professions. I do not need to point out here that good teaching is one of the most vital forms of communication. But it is equally important for doctors to communicate with their patients, lawyers with their clients, businessmen in selling their products, scientists in making known their discoveries. For men and women in public affairs communication means active participation in civic issues. It is the connective tissue knitting together social groups.

In trying to define communication broadly, I have come to feel that it is the translation of one's individual talents into a negotiable form. What you and only you have to give is transferred to other people in a form they can understand, accept and use constructively. The forms may differ but the transfer, the exchange, is the essential element always present.

Artistic or personal communication also has many forms. The exchange can take place, most of us will agree, in speech or writing or even in glances, in music or dancing and in art of all kinds. There is also silent communication, the sharing of an experience with another person. Wordless communication is one of the highest forms because at this point, communication becomes communion. The Irish poet Yeats once spoke of (I quote) " . . . that supreme experience of life: (which he thought possible only for the young) to share profound thought and then to touch."

I have been trying to define communication-to say what it is-but as someone once remarked, it is easy enough to explain what a tree is, it is more difficult to say why is a tree? Why is communication? Or why is communication important? Thinking about it I decided it was important to me because of a very simple paradox: we are social animals and at the same time we are solitary, irrevocably solitary. We communicate in order to break out of our solitude, our loneliness, in order to be part of our world, in order to share our experiences, and perhaps to try to discover their meaning. In other words, we communicate in order to illuminate our lives, or the lives of others. We try to illuminate the darkness both within ourselves and outside of us.

At least this is why I write-to illuminate for myself and occasionally I hope, for others. Since writing is the form of communication I know best, I must concentrate on my own special field today, although I think the process is much the same in any creative act, any career undertaken, any piece of work well done, including the welding of a relationship or the art and discipline of life itself.

There are some wonderful moments in the creative process, especially in the beginning. At the outset there is the moment of vision, the first glimpse of what you want to say or create, or do. It is the point of departure-whatever it is that sets you off on your journey. It used to be called "inspiration." Today it might be called a kick­off or a hunch or an insight. A French poet once called this point "la ligne donnee." One line of the poem is "given" to you. You must work to add the rest.

There are an infinite variety of points of departure but there is one thing they all have in common-and that is "the gift." Something is "given." You remember in the old fairy tales when The Goose Girl or the King's son set out on their journeys, they were given something. The gift always had a magic property. It opened up unexpected possibilities: a table cloth that produced meals when you said "Spread, table, spread," or a comb that turned into a forest to delay your pursuing enemy, or a key that unlocked bolted doors. The gift is very precious. Don't ask where it comes from or who gave it to you: whether God gave it or your unconscious or some angel or some devil. Don't ask, because you might doubt the gift.

This is the first temptation-not to take the gift seriously. You have had a vision, in whatever form it came; a glimpse of what you want to do, and you wonder if it's real, if you can trust it. Moments of vision, you think, are deceptive; they are irrational. In a culture that today values the rational above all else, visions don't make sense. Besides, you are too busy; there are other things to do: clean out your desk, do your laundry, wax your skis, write a letter to your mother-or your grandmother! Usually these are only excuses for avoiding the demands of the gift.

If you have a gift, you have a responsibility. If you have a line of poetry given and don't pursue it, you may never be given another. The passage to the unconscious may be blocked. If you strike a vein of gold and don't tap it, the mine may be closed forever. If you have a glimpse of where you want to go and don't take a compass reading, you may never reach your destination.

We will assume though (for the purpose of continuing our journey) that when we have this moment of vision, we stop; we pay attention; we appreciate the gift.

It is as if one were standing on a look­out point and seeing across the valley to the peak one wants to climb. One must look at it well because one never quite sees this view again. It is a beautiful clear day and the peak over there is not only dazzling but it looks astonishingly near. A few hours' brisk walk would reach it or, at most, an afternoon's expedition. But one doesn't move because it's so beautiful, so perfect and so clear. Nothing, one thinks, will ever be the same again. Nothing will ever be as difficult, because one has had this glimpse of reality. One is struck dumb; one wants to stay there forever, looking at the view.

This is the second temptation. Many people get stopped at this point. I've been here myself. One is so enamored of the vision of the poem or work of art, or destination, that one can't move ahead toward it. And one must.

Vision is a miracle, a gift, a point of departure but it isn't communication. To communicate your vision, you have to leave the look­out, go down into the valley, trudge across the bog, make your way through the dark forest at the foot of the mountain, and climb up the steep stony paths at the summit. You have to surrender the vision in order to give it form, shape and body. The flower of insight has to be sacrificed for the fruit of a finished work.

So now, if you have courage enough to leave your vision, you start your descent on the practical path of action. You tighten up the laces of your hiking boots and off you go. Surprisingly, once you leave the vision, this first part of the journey is easy. It is early in the day and you have lots of energy and it is downhill all the way. You tear down the path pell­mell. You are going so fast that you stumble over your own feet. You can hardly keep up with the momentum. Ideas are coming faster than you can use them or put them on paper, if you are writing.

And, worse still, you can't discriminate between good ideas and bad ones. The flow of this first impetus of creation is like a mountain stream, carrying everything it meets along the way: sticks, stones, weeds, flowers, pine cones, empty beer cans-everything is carried downhill in the first wave of enthusiasm.

Unfortunately, rather swiftly one reaches the bottom of the hill, the end of the first stage. With a hard thump you find yourself on level ground. The early morning impetus is spent. You are alone, and you've lost the vision and you don't even see the mountain peak because you're in the scrubby lowland.

You have only the memory of your vision and your faith in it, a kind of compass on which you have set a course.

At this low point I find there is unexpected help-the stimulus that comes from being in the actual process of work. (Running down the hill­side wasn't work.) Engagement in process-the process of hacking out a path, or walking ahead-has certain rewards. They are not very romantic ones, but rather tough and earthy like the clods under your feet. You discover things about yourself, your endurance, your toughness, and even about your destination. Many irrelevancies drop away just from putting one foot down in front of the other. Discoveries surge up from the pound of your feet on the ground.

But, someone will say, suppose I discover I'm on the wrong path? Don't panic! This is possible. In fact, it is one of the gifts of process, of involvement. Involvement in action gives you the chance of discovering you're on the wrong course, perhaps even pointed toward the wrong mountain. But you would never have made this discovery by sitting on the lookout point. Without involvement you would be there still, not having found anything or learned anything. You may have to turn around, climb a tree, take fresh stock of yourself and your orientation, but you're further ahead than if you had never set out.

I'm going to assume we're on the right path, after perhaps one or two tries. The path leads to the mountain and we're feeling more confident. There are, of course, going to be difficulties. I can't describe them all, and you probably know them already. There are many different kinds and they have to be met in totally different ways. (The fairy­tale comb and tablecloth and key don't conquer them all.) Some of these hurdles must be met actively and some passively; some with will­power; some with rationality. Others must be met with just the opposite approach, by letting go, being open, listening.

I'll describe a few familiar hazards. One of the hardest to cross is the bog. In writing, this is the moment when you face the humiliation of the first draft. It takes an enormous amount of courage to face the pain of this moment. The disparity between your vision and the first draft is unbelievable. What you've written is messy; it's heavy; it's inarticulate. The words that come to you are awkward and lumpy, and they won't fit together into a sentence. You are like a two year old child fumbling with blocks. Why did you ever think you could write? This is the marsh, the bog, the quagmire and I've been in it often myself. I am sorry to have to admit I think this is a normal stage in writing. I have never found a detour around the bog. You have to go plodding right through it. It is the only way to reach the second draft. If one clumps ahead, no matter how awkwardly, one does reach the second draft, and then the third and the fourth.

Now you're doing all right until you reach a chasm-a deep gorge, with a river in it. In writing, this is the blank page, the dead end. You have had a vision; you have worked hard on it; you have made a beginning and now suddenly, and very unfairly, you are stopped cold. How do you get across the chasm? This is not the time to use the rational approach, or will power, or Evel Kneivel leaps. You can't argue yourself across the chasm, or swim it, or leap it. A totally new approach is needed, a helper, a guide, a sign. (In the fairy tale at this point a shaggy pony would appear and carry you across) You are out of touch with your unconscious and you need an intuitive signal, another gift. Relax, take a day off, do a job where you can see a tangible result; cut the lawn, bake a loaf of bread, forget about the chasm, and get a good night's sleep. The next morning you may find the smallest little thread of an idea to throw across the chasm. If it holds, then you can fasten a cord to the thread and then a rope-a bridge- and you're over!

With the chasm behind you, it is a relief to be up in the woods. There are no more gorges but after an hour or two of climbing around trunks and roots, you begin to be confused. You can't see the forest for the trees. This is a familiar stage in writing. You've written pages and pages but you can't get far enough away from it to see what you've done. You can't see it whole. You wonder what it's like-does it say anything? Would it mean something to another person? And suddenly you have a desperate idea: show it to your roommate, your friend, your husband, your wife. He'll know-she'll know, you think hopefully.

All I can say is, DON'T! Not at this stage. No one else can help you here; no one else had your particular vision so no one else can compare the reality of what you've actually done to your early dream. They can't see where you are or where you're going, and whatever they say will only discourage you. There is nothing to do here but to climb around each tree as it comes, hoping you will eventually get out of the forest.

Finally, one sees sky through the trees and one comes out into the open. And here one is on the rocky upper slope of the mountain. Everything is very clear and bare-and boring. What you've written, what you've struggled over, what you've carved out with such difficulty isn't any startling creation. It is just a stretch of hard­pan platitudes. Those original ideas of yours are simply trite and obvious truths that everyone knows already. Why give the stuff to anyone? You want to throw it all away.

At this point you are probably wrong. You have worked at it too long and it has become stale. What is dull and familiar to you may be fresh and stimulating to someone else. If it is a piece of writing, don't tear it up. Type it out again, neaten it up, look at the clean copy and, at last, show it to someone. Just a little more climbing and you'll be at the top.

And what happens when you're at the top? No seven gun salutes, no fireworks, no vision. The peak doesn't look as it did from the early lookout point. I warned you, you would never see just that view again. In fact, you might be on the same hill you started from. Was the journey for nothing?

The journey was worth making because when you finish your poem or your book or your piece of work, it speaks to others. And it is the response of others who hear, and only this response, that tells you have reached the point you aimed for. This response in itself is a great joy. It can be, as I said in college, "the most exciting thing in life" to know you have communicated your vision to others. You are not alone.

But the response is not the only reward. By your finished work, whatever it is, you have joined yourself to the human community in a totally new way. You have added a fresh step to the sum of human accomplishment, knowledge or insight. Because of what you have illuminated, others may see clearly and work further ahead on new ground.

And now about you, yourself-do you see more clearly? That is obvious, of course, when you reach the mountain­top a whole new landscape opens up below you, with other peaks on the horizon. The landscape was once described by a poet and I shall end on his words ñ from T.S. Eliot's Little Gidding:

"We shall not cease from our exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started from And know the place for the first time."