I used to think I hate the word pole—perhaps I do. Pole is the sorry one offers for minor injuries and the condolence one offers for major losses. It means sorry you are feeling pain. It is a ritual word. A word that carries and means and performs.
I’m not very sure I understand empathy or sympathy. As an undergraduate, I wrestled to distinguish the two. As a teacher, I tried to describe them. Pole always haunted these efforts.
Pole is ritual.
It is what one is supposed to say, what one is trained to say, what one is disciplined to say—the discipline that becomes habit. Habits can be sincere. I’m not sure pole extends or displaces as sympathy or empathy do. It might create something else—or simply sustain a sociality. Sometimes it means I am here. Sometimes it means I am thinking about you. Sometimes it means I cannot be here for you in this or that way but, perhaps, in another way. Now, I’m drawn to the perhaps of it.
I distrust it.
Pole is not about resilience. Though it needs an awareness that the world produces and proliferates injury. It is, perhaps, an injured word. A word that seeks injury, that magnifies injury, that revels in injury so that it can offer comfort.
An army of people march around Kenya offering pole. It falls from a million strange mouths—it sits with injury. I am not sure it offers comfort. Pole waits to leap out, to perform its injury-noticing function. It transfers from house to house, wound to wound, loss to loss, and it multiplies.
We use it so easily. So readily. We stand waiting to use it.
A turn, perhaps.
I have been thinking for a while about Audre Lorde’s question,
What do we want from each other
After we have told our stories
It is an impertinent question, especially at a time when telling one’s story has become part of the data-generating machinery of everyday life. Africans must tell their stories. Queers must tell their stories. Women must tell their stories. So many unheard stories, we are told. So many stories to be told.
And then what?
Lorde’s question is frightening. What if one’s story is deemed useless? What if one’s pain does not matter? What if one’s most profound insights are banal? What if one’s story simply becomes another data point in some unfathomable calculus? What if one’s story is illegible? What if one’s story turns others against one? What if one’s story is disgusting? What if those listening to one’s story do not know how to hear it.
I think of the African writers trying to sell their work abroad to people who don’t know how to hear them. I think of African writers trying to sell their work in Africa to people who don’t know how to hear them.
I think of those convinced that telling stories matters who lack the courage to ask what happens after those stories are told. What do we want from each other? Can we give it to each other?
Pole manages the act of telling stories.
Does it mean, “I have heard you”? Does it mean, “I am here for you”? Does it mean, “what do you need me to do?” Does it mean, “shut up and get over it”?
We say pole to preempt the demand that might come. Having offered my pole, I can walk away, convinced I have given what is required, without giving what might be demanded.
We have become convinced that listening is enough. We have become convinced that being listened to is enough. What do we want from each other? We have learned to say, “to be heard” or “to be listened to” or “to be acknowledged.” To hear “pole.” We have learned not to ask for more, not to believe there might be more, or that there should be more.
We say pole at funerals. I dislike funerals. I will not attend them. I do not like what they attempt to manage. I do not like what they attempt to create. I do not like their lies.
We know what to do at funerals. We know how to plan them, how to stage them, when to say pole, and when to repeat it. We are more comfortable with funerals than we are living with each other. We will chant “never forget” for people whose demands we ignored when they were alive.
Repeatedly, I’m struck by Kenyan gestures of resignation. Shauri ya Mungu is, of course, the most popular. Increasingly, I think pole is another.
Pole refuses to ask what we want from each other after we have told our stories.