IVP - Strangely Dim - To See, to Hear, Perchance to Feel

August 20, 2012

To See, to Hear, Perchance to Feel

A reflection on connection by David A. Zimmerman

I find, as I edit nonfiction, that one of my chief tasks is to narrow the gap between author and reader. It's a tricky business for both parties. For the reader, who can't see who's behind the book, it can be difficult to assign value to what's been written. Is the author trustworthy? Has she taken into account what I've experienced? Has he really thought this thing through? The onus is on the author to make the reader feel comfortable and confident with the message at hand.

I pity authors, actually, because they take on this task without access to any evidence of success. There is no conversation partner who nods and leans forward when something resonates, no church congregation member who shouts "Amen!" or claps politely or stays awake (depending on your faith tradition) when a point hits, no audience obeying the applause signal hanging over the host's head.

Even negative feedback is helpful in communication; when someone shouts "Shut up!" or boos or falls asleep, at least you know a course correction is in order. As awkward as such moments can be, they're infinitely more helpful than the deafening silence that greets authors with each new sentence; they have all the responsibility of a communicator and no access to the energy that fuels success. All they get are the editor's comments.

That means the onus is on me to make the author feel comfortable and confident with the message at hand. And it's a crapshoot to figure out what I can say to achieve that desired response.

I recently came across a clue in a crossword puzzle that read "Assurance from a therapist," for which the correct response was "I see." I got it right (even though my therapist wife almost never says that) because the clues that surrounded it gave it away. So I filled it in, and then I went to help a friend distribute a book he's written for new inmates at the local jail, where I got into it with an inmate who didn't like that I made his celly cry. He lit into me, and I, in an attempt to heal the tension between us, told him, "I hear you."

"You hear me?!? I don't care if you hear me! Do you feel me?!? DO YOU FEEL ME?!?"

I suppose I could have told him, "No, I HEAR YOU. DO YOU HEAR ME?!?" Or I could have been even more officious and responded with a noncommittal "I see." But I really wanted to be done with this guy, so I said, "Yeah, I feel you." Apparently he didn't feel felt, because he kept yelling at me till I finally wandered off.

see me feel me.jpgSee. Hear. Feel. All in one day. You wouldn't think there was a vast expanse between each of these, but apparently there is. I came home from prison and got ready to go back to work, where countless authors were waiting to find out from me whether what they'd written was on track. Should I see them, hear them or feel them?

I like to think that in the area of human connection, these are generational terms. My wife might not tell a client "I see," but I can imagine Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung saying it. Something seen is objective, definable, classifiable. It's a specific piece of a solvable puzzle. To see is to lend something empirical substance; it's the affirmation of the modern era, the era that gave us psychotherapy and called it a science.  

Hearing is the preferred communication of my generation, hence my feeble attempt with the hostile inmate. "I hear you" acknowledges that there are things unseen--things nonmaterial, things irreducible to empirical data--that must not be neglected and must be given their due. It's a bridge into postmodernity, so to speak. Fledgling postmoderns don't say "I'm listening to you," because such a phrase lacks the warmth we need to survive a cold, meaningless existence; we say "I hear you" as an assurance that the void between us has been overcome, and we are not alone. The generation that shook off the stigma of the therapeutic process--the generation that took the psycho out of psychotherapy--doesn't just see and so affirm the point of what you're saying; it hears you and affirms your person.

But now the ground has shifted again, and it's no longer enough to see or hear. A person--who stands in the totality of his experiences and emotions and insights and convictions--must be felt. In a virtual world awash in ephemera, our existence is not so much meaningless as it is elusive; perhaps only a sense of touch, of true connection, will reassure us that there are fixed points in our person. We feel people when our spirits are quickened by theirs, when what they say and how they say it rings true, when we connect. To feel in this respect is too intimate for a formal therapist-client relationship; it's more covenantal than therapy ought to allow.

Not that I'm my authors' therapist, nor that my authors are their readers' therapists. But these are the cumulative demands on communication these days, particularly communication that supposes to carry some authority or gravitas. If I want authors to trust me with their prose, then the onus is on me to make sure that they see my points, that they hear my concerns, that they feel me binding myself to their books' success. If authors want readers to give their books more than a passing thought, then what they write needs to be seen and heard and felt; but more to the point, in what they write they must demonstrate that their readers are being seen and heard and felt.

It's a lot to ask of an author. But talk to anyone about their favorite books, and you'll find that the best authors are, by and large, up to the task.


Get a taste of how the Bible resonates here.

Discover some sensory spiritual practices here.

Hear from postmodern people how they see their path to faith here.


Posted by Dave Zimmerman at August 20, 2012 7:41 AM Bookmark and Share

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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