The Sensational Language of Engagement

This blog is dedicated to Gretchen Schmelzer whose work has often inspired me. Her more recent blog, The ‘Water’ Moments of Healing, enabled me to fine tune how I experience language.

In my work as a Creative Arts Therapist I have often communicated that creativity is our “mother tongue”, our innate non-verbal, and sensory based language through which we express and communicate our thoughts and feelings. I also have discussed how, as my approach is established in developmental psychology, I see that our coming into this world is experienced in the paradox described by D. W. Winnicott. Winnicott, a pediatrician and psychoanalyst, developed the theoretical concept of a “holding” environment: an environment that allows you to safely feel taken care of, protected, understood, accepted unconditionally, and held in such a way that your consciousness which, at the beginning of human development is unformed, fluid, and changeable, can grow spontaneously and naturally on its own.  (Excerpt from The Holding Environment)

The paradox that is created as a result of this theoretical concept is:

In order for an infant to develop a sense of self as independent from others, it is dependent on the other to provide the environment in which to develop this sense.

And I use the word “sense” literally. We are sensory beings.  As the amniotic fluid is a greater sound carrier than water, our sensory environment begins in utero:

“Perhaps the most significant [sound] a baby hears in utero is his mother’s voice. Around the seventh and eighth month, a fetus’s heart rate slows down slightly whenever his mother is speaking, indicating that mom’s voice has a calming effect. By the time they’re born, babies can actually recognize their mother’s voice.”

After birth, our experiences continue to be shaped, formed and influenced by what we hear, see, smell, taste, touch, as well as experience proprioceptively and vestibularly.  Our Central Nervous System is continuously perceiving, sorting, choosing and responding to information received through our sensory system.  Over the years, we collect and store these experiences.  We construct and form memories. And these memories are based on the type or lack of engagement between the self, the other and the environment.

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller

The bridge from non-verbal to verbal.

Schmelzer writes; “In the story, [Helen Keller’s autobiography, “The Story of my Life.”]  Helen, who loses her sight and hearing as a toddler from Scarlet Fever, is lost in her own world. She rages and fights and struggles to make herself understood, and she can’t connect to the world around her. She has experiences, she has feelings, she has sensations—but no way to put these things in to a language. And then Annie comes along and begins to teach her that each thing in the world is paired with a word.”

This is a beautifully written depiction of the powerful discovery of language that connects object to thought and feeling. Its non-verbal source, however, comes from the engagement with the other. Annie Sullivan’s hands, spelling into Helen Keller’s hands and Sullivan placing Keller’s hand on Sullivan’s mouth, enabled the sensory experience to be transformed into a verbal language.

The beginning of this type of engagement with Annie Sullivan led to Hellen Keller’s full engagement with others and her world; internally and externally, literally, symbolically and metaphorically.

Storytelling, another language of engagement.

The act of storytelling is a central part of who we are.  Stories help make sense of our world and our place in it and we define ourselves by a story within time.  We create stories; verbally, oral and written, and non-verbally, through movement/dance, visual symbols and signs/visual arts, and sound making/music.  Where there is life, in any form, there is communication. But only humans tell stories.

Helen Keller wrote:

“Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness.”

We discover our self through the engagement with the other, through our communication with the other and through the sensory language of engagement. The experience of discovery is a creative one and so Winnicott brings it back full circle when he states:

“It is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”

Image: Annie Sullivan, Hellen Keller and Phillips BrooksS