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Our Whole Life Is Sign Language
Our Whole Life Is a Series of Signs

"The greater the feeling of inferiority that has been experienced, the more powerful is the urge for conquest and the more violent the emotional agitation.”
—Alfred Adler, early Austrian therapist

I worked at a group home in Coralville, Iowa. It was for teens who could no longer live where they came from. From outside, you’d hear screams. It was that kind of home. All the staff had short hair. Otherwise, a resident could grab it, smash your head against something. My favorite, Trey, used his own head on you. I learned this once, when I had him in a hold. He ducked his head forward, then sent it back, hard. My teeth hurt for a week.

I learned to look for disaster, to steer away from situations that would set Trey off. We’d take to the sidewalks and sing country songs. “Strawberry Wine” was on the radio then. It was what we loved most. I knew the verses; he’d join in out loud only on the word “wine.” To hell with the neighbors; I was just glad he wasn’t inside, breaking stuff. Can you blame him? His heart was ripped out. Fridays, he stood at the front window, waiting on family that never arrived. And then he’d erupt. Anyone would’ve, even you, even me. But Trey didn’t have words. He spoke in flying lamps, end-tables, flung puzzle-boxes. 

It wasn’t chaos, the wreckage. If you looked, it meant something.

Years later, I fell for Alfred Adler, the Austrian therapist who broke off from Freud. He said all behavior is meaningful, it has context and purpose. Our whole life is a series of signs. Any slight action: a dim semaphore. Likewise, the psychiatrist James Gilligan, having interviewed people in prison for doing violent harm, said their crimes were actually a form of communication: an attempt to mean something; to be heard; to be known. If someone studied the aftermath of our own life’s disaster? Maybe they’d pick out a pattern, some meaning in it. Through the crackle, the noise, maybe they’d detect the faint signal of our own failing heart. Our redemption, if it happens, will mean somebody tried.

Prayer
Precious God who listens to us even when we fall silent, we have not always extended the same care or curiosity to those around us. Help us notice in small gestures all we are being told; help us receive one another in generous love, until it is the nature of all relations, the world over. Amen.

About the Author

  • Since 2003, Jake Morrill has served as Lead Minister of the Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church. He has also served as Executive Director of the UU Christian Fellowship since 2015. From 2013-16, he served as a Chaplain in the U.S. Army Reserve, and was a Trustee on the UUA...

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