I have always been captivated by big, grand, absolutist words. Words that name clear edges or hard stops or lines crossed—the finite, unequivocal, forbidden, unforgivable, irrevocable. Words that evoke how something is clear or clear-cut in ways that end confusion or questions. These are words that are almost historic or classical, with cognizable wisdom, that elicit reverence. These are words that quiet.
My earliest memory of grappling with one of these words was when I was about seven. There was a stretch of my childhood when my middle sister and I did not get along. Sometimes we hit each other, and sometimes I spat in her face, but mostly, we yelled at each other. Being as young as I was, I mostly trafficked in screaming at her to shut up or how stupid she was.
And my mother understandably lost patience with the noise. In the middle of one of our screaming matches, my mom snapped at me: “You’re now banned from these words,” she said. No more shut up, no more stupid.
Banned made me pause. It was a hard edge. For me, disobeying my mother wasn’t an option or a thought that crossed my mind—and why would it have been? This was a clear line drawn, an immovable barrier. I could no longer say those words. I was aware of how this ban impeded the things that were important to me at the time, things like fighting with my sister, quoting Ren & Stimpy at school, or yelling on the playground at recess (telling another kid to “be quiet” is hardly effective when “shut up” is an option). But, to me, it was a big enough word that I needed to obey it despite any anger or frustration I might have felt—and that maybe it would eventually push aside these feelings.
At the start of 2020, before our collective grappling with global notions of a pandemic and repeated preventable deaths and persistent grief, I was personally immersed in big language. At their essence, the words weren’t really that big at all: someone I knew did something wrong to a friend. But these small words hardly did anything. In an effort to qualify the truth, I cycled through myriad iterations of more unequivocal language.
Someone I knew did something wrong to a friend. Nope, it didn’t say enough.
Someone close to me hurt my friend. But there’s so much more to it than that.
Someone close to me hurt and betrayed and traumatized my friend. Yet how to capture it all?
Someone I had invited into my home and broke bread with did something unconscionable and obscene. This person fundamentally harmed my friend and therefore betrayed me and a community I love.
I had all these words to describe what had happened, to show just how unquestionably unforgivable it truly was. Some of these big words had never been so close to me, like misconduct and mandatory reporter. I also had language to describe how I felt: saddened, enraged, resentful, and disenchanted.
I strung this language across my journal and churned it over in my thoughts. I hoped that holding these words close might somehow quell my feelings. Instead, these words reminded me of the lines that had been crossed. My anger became ever-present, and I began to ruminate. As I gathered these words and the feelings that came with them, I could feel their weight collecting in my stomach, the pressure of them in my chest, and the stinging they caused in my eyes. The feelings were deep enough that they had nested in my body, and I could not let them go.
In another moment when I was screaming at my sister, I was so angry that I was crying, too. My sister yelled back—how stupid I was, how I should shut up my mouth. My shouting and sobs were loud and persistent. Fed up with us not figuring this out on our own, my exasperated mother asked what exactly was happening. I told her that my sister hurled around words I wasn’t allowed to say, that I was constrained by being banned while my sister was not.
And now, I can see in my memory that my mom paused at this. Her decision to say I was banned from some words had really been a reactive choice made on the fly. In fact, she had forgotten she said it at all. It was just supposed to stop some squabbling in that moment. It wasn’t meant to be a permanent means to a quiet end. So my mom told me I was no longer banned, and I suddenly felt liberated to go on insulting my sister all I wanted.
In 2020, the magnitude of the language in my head had trapped me. Because I have lived with anxiety for most of my life, I’ve collected tools and strategies to turn to when I know my anxious brain is doing too much. I know I can access my thoughts on whether they are factually true, rational, or helping me to feel better. If not, I work at letting them pass. But, this betrayal remained stuck in mind. I continued to journal about it, hoping that putting something on paper would clear it from my head as that process usually did. Yet the thoughts stayed with me as a uniquely persistent and anxious deliberation that I couldn’t shake.
Eventually, I turned to a different tactic I learned to use against my anxious brain: reading fiction. Even if my mind isn’t eager to let something go, I can interrupt it by immersing myself in someone else’s narrative. I picked up a book I had been meaning to read, The Fall of Rome by Martha Southgate. There are big wrongs in the book, events that can be described with absolutist words of magnitude. Indeed, it is hard to describe racism, for instance, without viewing it as immoral, unethical, irrational, and constant.
Yet as I read the book, looking for wrong events that I could clearly label, I found the opaque kinds of interactions that were harder to categorize. Because Southgate follows her characters so closely, I was reminded of a practice I was unable to apply to the betrayer in my life: seeing decisions that I did not agree with, that I thought were unforgivable, and still managed to make space for other feelings—complication and compassion.
I still wanted to keep the big language. In fact, I hated that I was starting to view something awful in my life with nuance and empathy toward something that did not merit it. But, nuance is what truly interrupted the churning of my brain over what I unequivocally condemned. I started to take pauses and find some quiet, not through the big words that I thought would be large enough to push out feelings, but from language with the ability to hold multiple perspectives.
I can’t look back at that time in my life or describe it without using language that draws hard edges. But this book made it possible for me to process the impact of these words when they show up in my life—and to stop them from drawing their hard edges around me.
Ijeoma Njaka is a writer and educator currently working on her first novel. She is an alumna of the Hurston/Wright, Kimbilio Fiction, VONA/Voices of Our Nations, and GrubStreet’s Novel Generator programs with publications in the Embark Literary Journal, Auburn Avenue, and Teaching Tolerance. Originally from the Twin Cities, Ijeoma now lives in Cleveland Park, DC.
Essay edited by Panama Jackson