PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Don’t Let Tribalism Tongue-Tie You

I am no longer tongue-tied.

People who know me well most likely are stunned to hear I was ever tongue-tied. After all, my nickname as a child was “talk talk.”

However, I have, until this week, been tongue-tied my entire life. I just didn’t find out I was until I was in my late 40s.

I have a congenital, hereditary condition that is technically called ankyloglossia. Essentially, it means that a membrane attached my tongue to the bottom of my mouth, and so I can’t stick my tongue out. Or move it around the way others without the condition can.

I was unaware of this, however. I always knew I had a lisp. My mother, the speech therapist, spent endless hours with me, making me say, “Sassy mice race across the ice,” and “She sells sea shells by the sea shore.” It improved but never disappeared, which I guess I always attributed to just bad luck.

It wasn’t until Ian was getting braces that I found out I had this condition. The dentist mentioned that he was tongue-tied and could not stick his tongue out and that it was hereditary. When we went home, I wondered if his father had it, and then thought I was sticking my tongue out, to show that I was fine.

Thing is, I wasn’t sticking my tongue out. I thought I was, but it didn’t go out. Apparently, I never stuck my tongue out in front of a mirror. I must admit, it was shocking to find this out so late in life, although I think if I had known earlier it might have created an even greater sense of stigma. I was, after all, at one time a 6-year-old with a lisp whose hands were covered in warts. There is only so much a child can take.

A couple of years later, when Ian had an errant wisdom tooth that shifted to the middle of his palate that needed to be removed, the doctor clipped his tongue in what is known as a frenectomy, releasing him from his tongue-tied state.

I, however, soldiered on, tongue firmly tied to my mouth.

That is until I had a conversation with my wonderful dentist, Jesse Hagen, who had been in Boston for a conference. I asked him what it was for, and he said it was about a new technique to do frenectomies, which is important for children who breast-feed.

As we chatted, he mentioned learning to do it on adults. I inquired how much one would cost, thinking that maybe I could put it on my “perhaps when I feel completely financially sound” list, and he said he really wanted to try one out on a person and would do it for free, so I could give him feedback and he would be able to tell people how it had worked.

Well, far be it from me to say no to that — I am a sucker to do anything for the sake of science. Oh, and a good deal.

I did a little research, discovering that for some people it can cause speech problems because the tongue is a muscle and when the membrane is cut, the muscle is weak. But as I prayed about it, I felt it was worth the risk. Something deep inside me told me this was going to be a very good thing.

And let me tell you, it was! As soon as he began to cut the membrane and release my tongue, I felt like a tight rubber band was being snapped in the back of my neck. For many years, I have struggled with headaches and neck tension, and suddenly, that felt released.

As I walked around later in the day, I was able to flop my head from one side to the other — I felt like a bobblehead doll. Never in my entire life had I felt so free — so loose. And my speech felt freer. I could finally do what my mom had told me all those years earlier. I had tongue control to speak more clearly.

For my entire life, I had been anchored — held in place by a membrane that kept me from experiencing the full mobility of a key muscle. And I didn’t know anything different. This was how it had always been for me, so the new reality was truly life changing. I felt less tense and more open, and I could speak more clearly.

As I was reflecting on this, I thought of how easy it is to get stuck in one mode — and to think that the way we experience the world is the only way the world is. We don’t take time to look at ourselves as others see us and figure that our normal is the same as other’s normal.

That is actually one of the dangers of tribalism — when we surround ourselves with those who are like us, listen to those who are like us and don’t take time to see ourselves the way others do. Sometimes we need to break free from things that anchor us in place.

We do that when we only listen to views that agree with us and don’t exercise the mental muscles that prevent us from stagnating with one point of view.

One of the reasons I appreciate social media is because it exposes me to perspectives that may not be my own from people I respect. I often disagree with them, but I have the opportunity to see through different eyes. To hear the pain that often drives the actions that make no sense to me helps me gain a different perspective.

That’s why it makes me sad when someone unfriends me because I have a different worldview than them. Because how can we live in peace with the world if we refuse to hear the words of friends, Facebook or otherwise, who are expressing them without malice or cruelty. If we just circle the wagons and listen only to those who agree with us.

One of the reasons I love to travel and why I enjoy reading is because it helps me see the world from a different angle, one that is not my own. And it helps me look in a mirror to see how others might view me.

I remember reading a powerful book a couple of years ago, “Mornings in Jenin” by Susan Abulhawa. It was about Palestine, and it gave me a new perspective on the lives of those who become terrorists. When I finished it, I certainly did not agree with or support terrorism. I continue to find it abhorrent. But I saw things from a new angle. And I believe that perspective helps me be a more compassionate person with those with whom I do not agree.

I can’t understand what it is like to be black or brown America — where the color of my skin affects how people see and respond to me. But when I read books, I can learn and perhaps become more empathetic. I am not tied in place — figuring my way is the right way. I use my mental mobility to expand my mind and how I view the world.

By untying my tongue, I released a great deal of tension in my life. I felt freer and looser. But I would never have known that was possible until I took the risk and cut the membrane that kept me in one place.

I keep feeling like when we settle into our tribes, we become tongue-tied, too. And perhaps if more of us cut the ties that keep us in one place, and increased our mental mobility, the world might be less tense, too.

3 thoughts on “PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Don’t Let Tribalism Tongue-Tie You”

  • ColdWinterWind October 1, 2017 at 7:11 am

    A good ‘story’; and a good read.

  • Ruth October 1, 2017 at 3:50 pm

    Much love to you, Paula! “Come let us reason together…” can only be accomplished when we are quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger – the righteousness of God is never accomplished through the anger of men – paraphrased from James. Interesting story and analogy …. yes “groupthink” isn’t the way unless your group is limited to you, Yah, Yeshua (the Word incarnate) and The Holy Spirit!

    1. Paula V. Mehmel October 1, 2017 at 8:50 pm

      That is why I always appreciate your perspective Ruth. You are one of the people about whom I was thinking–we don’t agree on a lot of issues, but we respect each other and where we are coming from–a love for God. And we do so respectfully. The world needs more of that. And yeah, that groupthink I can get down with!


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