Sheesh. Last week was a full one for me. I was stretched and shaped and shocked without a bit of time or mental energy to blog.
I spent 2½ days at a violence prevention workshop through an organization called Alternatives to Violence where a motley crew of gringas, Guatemaltecos, and Mayas joined together to find ways to cultivate peace and alternatives to violence in our respective relationships, families, and communities. We shared 20 hours of team building and conflict resolution, complete with improvised socio-dramas, exercises in empathy, and even trust falls ALL IN SPANISH.
Forced bonding with strangers is not particularly high up on my list of hobbies and interests when I’m communicating in my native tongue; small talking in Spanish is a different beast entirely. I’ve found that I’ve acquired the aggravating level of Spanish where I can understand most of what is spoken to me, but I just so happen to forget everything I’ve ever learned whenever I am asked a question, only to remember exactly how I should have worded my response two minutes after the person I was speaking with has left the room.
So on Tuesday when we were asked to break into small groups for a conflict resolution activity, I was already feeling a bit tongue-tied and insecure. Then came the kicker: I was put on the spot to share a personal story of how I’ve diffused a potentially violent situation in my own life in Spanish.
So what did I do?
My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and verb charts flashed before my eyes in an onslaught of subjunctives as I racked my brain for stories of potential violence from my inopportunely peaceful life.
I told the group I didn’t really have a violent story to share and thought I was going to be let off the hook. But then they started prodding me, have you ever had a problem with your family? Have you had a problem at work? they asked.
Yes, yes, I’ve had a misunderstanding at work, I schemed, I mean thought. I could tell them about a misunderstanding with my boss. Only I didn’t know how to say misunderstanding. I could say conflict though—close enough.
So I started telling a woefully uneventful story about a conflict with my boss. I wanted to say that there was a miscommunication and that I felt unappreciated. What came out of my mouth in Spanish was a different story entirely.
After I fumbled through saying that my boss and I met with human resources, I tried to think of a good way to end my tale. In real life the story ended quite peaceably. We talked it out. The problem was resolved. No hard feelings.
Only the problem of recounting the story in Spanish to my eager groupmates remained.
During the slight hesitation in which I was internally conjugating resolve into the past perfect tense, a group member helpfully offered up an alternate ending to my classic tale of exploited worker vs. vindictive boss:
“Él fue despedido?” “He was fired?” he asked in such perfectly conjugated and impeccably pronounced Spanish that I found myself nodding my head emphatically in agreement. My compañeros beamed at me, obviously impressed with my gumption, and I basked in the accomplishment of a story well told for an entire two seconds before I realized that my story was in no way true. I have never had a boss fired nor have I ever wanted that to happen.
But it was too late. One group member began writing my fantastic story on a big piece of paper to share with the rest of the groups. My lie was going to be the example!
I watched in an awkward blend of pride and horror as my groupmate recounted my story to everyone in the room. I thanked God that only the friend I came with would see through my fabricated fable. She gave me a quizzical, confused look; I just smiled and shrugged as they moved on to the next group’s harrowing tale.
So that is how I came to lie to an entire group of peace builders. However, the point of the story isn’t that I lied or that I am learning to lie. The point of the story is that I’m learning to communicate, and it’s hard work in any language. Second language acquisition isn’t just an academic endeavor; it’s a daily surrender to grace, humility, and sometimes even a smidge of humiliation. Some days my Spanish takes one step forward and two steps toward two-faced, but, more importantly, I’m learning to fumble through. To keep going. To keep trying. To force some pitiful syllables out of my mouth when it would be much easier to stay silent. To disengage.
Throughout the 2½ day workshop, I was shown such grace by my fellow participants. They were patient with me, teaching me to be patient with myself. They were loving with me, reinforcing that my self worth is not measured in the smart things I can say. That there are other ways to connect and bond and engage. To show empathy. To share in excitement. To build friendship.
Except for the one little lying incident, the workshop showed me that people from all different socio-economic backgrounds, who speak different languages, claim different faith traditions and varying ethnicities can still work together. We can use our actions and what little words we have to build greater peace and understanding. And that is not a lie.