In 1977, writer and activist Audre Lorde had to undergo surgery to remove a tumor. Though doctors eventually determined that the tumor was benign, the weeks leading up to her surgery were a time of deep reflection for her. She talks about this in a now-famous speech:
“In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my own mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for in my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid?”
I was first introduced to this quote in Zenju Earthlyn Manuel’s book The Way of Tenderness and was reminded of it after listening to Krista’s conversation with Eula Biss on whiteness, which we are re-airing this week. In the episode, Eula Biss helpfully articulates a truth about the silence around this topic: “If you can’t talk about something, you can’t think about something.”
Listening to the episode, I was brought back to Audre Lorde’s quote — which talks about silence in the context of her experience as a black woman. In speaking her truth, much was at stake: “the harsh light of scrutiny and perhaps of judgment, of pain, of death.” Though they are talking about breaking silence in different contexts, I couldn’t help but see the parallels between Biss’s words and what Lorde calls the “transformation of silence into language and action.” As Lorde writes:
“In the transformation of silence into language and action, it is vitally necessary to teach by living and speaking those truths which we believe and know beyond understanding. Because in this way alone we can survive, by taking part in a process of life that is creative and continuing, that is growth.”
There is something universally terrifying about this transformation. It involves trust and a painful level of vulnerability. For Lorde, though, articulating these truths — making them visible — is at the heart of what it means to live in courageous and deep connection with others.
I’ll leave you with the questions Audre Lorde asks of us in her speech: “What are the words you do not have yet? What do you need to say?” As always, I’d love to hear if you have any thoughts on these questions — you can write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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