Patrick Campbell on what people who stammer can teach others.
Stammering makes things hard to say. You open your mouth to speak but the words do not come. They are trapped in your throat, mangled by your tongue and halted by your lips.
But sometimes things are hard to say for other reasons, including for people who don't stammer. Words like ‘I love you’ can be trapped in your heart, mangled by your insecurities and halted by your fears of rejection.
We have a chance... to physically show that words are worth something. Stammerers can help society to appreciate that all of our interactions have value.
This difficulty of saying ‘I love you’ is what brings its power, though. Its weight. If ‘I love you’ was always easy for us to say, it would not be worth as much.
So, if society recognises the emotional challenges of saying certain things as being of value – being of weight – could it also begin to give value and weight to the physical challenges of speaking too?
When a stammerer, like myself, says something seemingly simple and superficial, such as “H-H-Hello, how are y-y-you?”, we still have to fight for it. We have to resist both the physical struggles stammering can bring and the stigma of speaking with a stammer.
We have a chance – unavailable to people who are fluent – to physically show that words are worth something. Stammerers can help society to appreciate that all of our interactions have value.
Federer v Murray
Let me try to explain it another way. I sometimes watch tennis. Watching Roger Federer can almost be a religious experience (1). Ageless, he glides across the court, swats single-handed backhands and has a whipping forehand. Roger Federer makes tennis look easy. His eight Wimbledon titles have seemed inevitable.
Watching Andy Murray is not a religious experience. Sweat-drenched, he runs across the court, clobbers double-handed backhands and power-hits forehands. Andy Murray reminds us that tennis is bloody hard. He has won Wimbledon twice and he has figuratively and literally given his body to do it.
Andy Murray may not match the transcendent and all-conquering tennis Roger Federer has brought to the sport but he has become a beloved figure. I think, in part, because of how he has shown how hard it all is, how much effort it takes, he has made us appreciate the weight of elite tennis, both mentally and physically, on an individual.
In a similar fashion, perhaps, stammerers may never be considered by society as stylish and slick orators (the Roger Federers of speaking, say). But maybe we can be seen as orators who bring different attributes to speaking and represent a different set of values (the Andy Murrays of speaking) - orators with a different kind of beauty. Ones who help remind society of the weight and effort that lies behind every time we communicate with another.
Those who stutter win, in the painful pauses of their demonstration that speech isn’t entirely natural, a respectful attention, a tender alertness. Words are, we are reassured, precious.
John Updike, Getting The Words Out
(1) David Foster Wallace, 'Federer as Religious Experience' , New York Times, August 20, 2006.