Edward T. Hall: A Personal Remembrance and "Thank You"

Edward Hall, Expert on Nonverbal Communication is Dead at 95

1914 — July 20, 2009

A Personal Remembrance and Thank You.

Edward T. Hall’s book, The Hidden Dimension, was for me like being a kid and discovering a hidden light switch in a dark and unfamiliar closet, wherein one just knows a valuable treasure is stored. Dr. Hall’s book confirmed that my fundamental experiences of the world, such as my experience of time and space and interpretations of body language, were essentially and mysteriously shaped by the culture I lived in. That culture is an atmospheric kind of influence difficult to even be aware of, except through the exposure of self to contrasting foreign environments.
Now, not only did I need to be conscious of how my parent’s religious and political views shaped my life, now I eagerly sought to become aware of culture as a shaper of my life experience too. Having freshly discovered that I could actually choose my religious and political views, through attention and awareness I now sought also to influence culture’s impact on my life.
The above is of particular interest since Dr. Hall, Ned as he is known to his friends, came into my life as a personal friend about three years ago. He is now eighty-three years old, still a man of ideas and filled with a yet urgent passion for the exploration and importance of understanding culture. He is a man of international professional stature and contribution. Last year he was honored with the Anthropology in Media Award. Former recipients include Stephen Jay Gould, Jane Goodall and Tony Hillerman.
Last year Ned also taught a Doctorate level graduate class at the University of New Mexico. I often drove him down to Albuquerque and back to Santa Fe for the Class, sharing lunch once there and an unending stream of stories on our journey to and fro. Ned loved to tell and hear stories. I also sat in on his class and witnessed the 83-year-old man thoroughly enjoy his passion of teaching; he loved to teach, to create environments of self-revelation and discovery for his students.
Ned’s life is the epitome of a provocateur and revealer of people to themselves. He has spent his life exploring how culture shapes our everyday perspectives on life, and how it determines our behaviors: in families, schools, business and government.
Having written numerous books, including The Silent Language, Beyond Culture, The Dance of Life and An Anthropology of Everyday Life, he is still writing. His books are not only classics in anthropology, architecture and international relations, they offer thinking that is still ahead of its time.
“I have at least another six book in me,” he says. But he knows his life span is narrowing down and so he is presently focusing on the one issue he believes is most vital for him to speak to.
His current work is about pain: human pain, and our strategies for coping with it. The subject came up in a breakfast conversation we had at the La Posada Hotel in Santa Fe.
Ned is white haired now. The lines in his face reflect his early years spent outdoors in southwest deserts and mountains. The weathered lines could be the drainage lines of a mountain or the revealed veins of a leaf held up to the sun. On Ned they reveal a continuing love of time out-of-doors. The arroyo patterned skin wrinkles radiate out from curious eyes and converge with deeper ones eroded into a character with a quick smile and a deep love of life.
Working on the Navajo and Hopi reservations in the thirties and forties gave Ned an unending supply of stories he is still enchanted with and yet loves to tell. Those years also gave him not only lifelong friendships but also deepened his initiatory introductions into the nature of human culture. “If you want to understand a different culture go make a friend…,” he would say.
We are sitting in the southwestern styled dinning room, with the high ceiling and kiva style fireplace in the corner. We’re next to the windows looking out onto the patio, where we would be if the weather were warmer. Ned is dressed in casual slacks and his comfortably worn tweed sport coat, ever the professor. We’ve finished our food, I’m enjoying my coffee and Ned is sipping his tea. Ned begins to tell me of a recent talk he gave to a group of teenagers at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, where he consulted for years.
“They were a noisy bunch of kids. Nobody could get them to really quiet down. Well! I started right off by saying ‘Life is painful.’ I had their attention right away. People don’t like to talk about it. But it is.
“I’m writing a book about pain, you know. There are basically three ways people deal with chronic pain. Three strategies. When my wife Mildie was sick, she was in severe chronic pain. I read this book, How to Cope with Chronic Pain. It’s about physical pain. But it got me to thinking about other kinds of pain: like chronic emotional and cognitive pain.
I used to have a dog that every time I went for a walk, well, if I didn’t take her, she’d start crying. She’d really be hurt. Even animals can feel emotional pain.
“One way people deal with chronic pain is by turning it out, against the world. Literally using their pain like a weapon! Taking it out on others. These are people who go through life using and hurting other people, using their anger and manipulation and aggression…. Usually they don’t even know they’re doing this.
“The second strategy is to turn it in, upon yourself: to become depressed, or alcoholic, or a drug addict. Or a workaholic…. But literally to become self-destructive in some way.
“When people think of pain, they tend to think of physical pain. But emotional pain is equally real. Look at the Indians. The Blacks. That’s what they’re struggling with—as entire populations: tremendous burdens of chronic emotional pain. Old historical stuff, and a lot of it current too.
“Racism causes tremendous pain. When I was teaching, I used to tell my classes this. Students would sometimes tell me they finally understood this pain they were in. They hadn’t been able to understand why they were in pain.
“The thing about emotional pain like this is—it’s not like a broken arm. There, you have an acceptable reason for your pain. But that doesn’t make the emotional pain any less real.
“The third strategy is one of transformation. These people turn their experience into a positive resource to draw upon; like creativity. The person literally uses the pain to become someone else. Some artists manage to do this. And people who use the energy of their pain to help people in the world around them. They identify with other people in pain. It’s not that they don’t feel their pain anymore. They don’t identify with it in a way that makes them want to hurt others, or themselves. They learn to use it.
In the course of talking about pain Ned placed his elbows on the table and then cradled his lose hound-dog cheeks and face in his hands as he talked. It’s a habit he displays sometimes when he’s thinking, and sometimes when he’s talking about material he’s thought deeply about, and cares about. His eyes occasionally go far away for a moment, unfocused and into the distance, as though seeing something others cannot. But now he rubs his cheeks vigorously a couple of times, as though to bring him self back to the sensory world. He fixes the serious and sparkling blue light of his eyes on me with focused attention.
“So!” Ned says, in the way he has of making the word an exclamatory question. “Tell me. What’s your story? How have you handled pain in your life?”

I attended Ned’s memorial service last night, at the Saint Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe, along with the many friends and family whose lives his life blessed. The above remembrance was written, near as I can figure, in 1998, for a memoir I was working on. Among the many loves Ned and I shared is the love of writing, and Ned will always be an inspiration for me. I miss you Ned. Thanks for being a mentor and a friend.

Travel wrapped in the blanket of love you wove with your own breath. You are the epitome of a wildly resilient spirit. — August 18, 2009.

1 Comment

  1. America the Stupid? « The Golden State

    08/24/2009 at 3:59 pm

    […] field of study, Edward T. Hall, died earlier this month.  Here is his New York Times obituary and here is a personal remembrance of a fine […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.