One of my least favourite experiences as a teacher is standing in front of a group of people, ready to express a deep and doubtlessly life-changing thought to a kind and receptive group of people, and not being able to think of the word I need. There is a word – I know that because I’ve been using it for years – and it has apparently evaporated from my mind. It is gone, possibly forever, but likely only until later in the week, when I no longer need it.
This is an awkward moment for a teacher who loves good words, because at that point, one is compelled to substitute three inadequate one-syllable words for the one eloquent and excellent word – an exercise in frustration if there ever was one.
Here’s an interesting excerpt from a book by Joan Chittester:
We know now that anomia, the inability to remember names, is common to anyone over thirty. Likewise with names, and jokes, and spatial cues, and phone numbers. It seems that as the brain ages it begins to sort and discard information that is “emotionally neutral.” What doesn't have personal meaning becomes less and less important to us as the years go by, less and less accessible, while matters of emotional impact become even fresher. …We begin to notice other dimensions of the world, of people, of events, of ideas beyond data, and to absorb them into our answers. We bring experience to knowledge and then add wisdom to our results. 1
I have probably known this word anomia for years, but likely had forgotten it – surely this is anomia in action. Chittister goes on to describe the hazards of our misinterpreting this most common facet of normal aging, and talks in a mostly useful way about the necessity of continuing to value learning – learning something – as we age, This is our option, rather than allowing ‘petrifaction, rigidity of soul, inflexibility’ to set in, rather than allowing anomia to intimidate and discourage us.
It is not difficult to understand the temptation to passively submit and just let all that aging business happen as it will, once we recognize that some of these disheartening changes are happening, and they are happening to us. But the need to keep ourselves in relationships and situations in which ideas are flowing, ideas we can engage with, that have emotional value to us, seems to be pivotal. It is of less importance whether it is in the context of a small bible study or in the pursuit of a university degree, whether it is in becoming curious about the story of a new friend or finding a way to navigate in a new community – there are many factors that determine which directions are going to open in front of each of us, and which ones appeal to each of us, and are therefore possible.
But to just wander through the last 20 or 30 years of life, winding down more and more, without engaging meaningfully in our own changing lives by willing ourselves to place the self we have become into challenging places, without insisting on using the experience and wisdom we have both acquired and been given…That would be a great loss, both to us personally and to the part of the world in which we have our being.
That would be… lamentable. Ah, the right word.
1 Hooyman and Kiyak, 153, as quoted in The Gift of Years, Chittester, BlueBridge, NY, 2008, p.96,97