Silence is a very funny thing. There’s a proverb that teaches silence is also a speech… and I agree with that. What that speech communicates depends on the context of the situation, of course. One of my favorite words of wisdom by Emerson is actually on the subject of silence, “Let us be silent, that we may hear the whisper of the gods.” I’ve always thought it paired well with Mother Theresa’s instruction:
We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence…. We need silence to be able to touch souls.
Silence is a friend in matters requiring reflection. In those respects, we can use silence as an armament unto ourselves. Sometimes, it takes an enormous amount of mental strength to hold back from communication with others in a situation. This is where “discretion is the better part of valor” or as Richard Stoddard penned it, where “silence is the speech of love.” How many times have we over-complicated a situation with words? In those situations our silence can communicate respect, I think, in an effort to not rush to judgement or further complicate an emotional situation. This is an area where I have to work very deliberately to succeed at. I ‘live out loud’ and like to “talk through things” rather than let things fester. Sometimes that’s good.. others? Some ‘communicated silence’ would serve me well; so I’ve developed a sort of roadmap I use:
My first and last checkpoints are the same and follow the edict of “First do no harm.” I try to take time to understand if my bad mood, or my emotions are creating a situation that may not really be there. The more upset I am, the more I have to focus – and will take time to do that – before I communicate my opinions on subjects of heavy weight. But before I do that, I try to be mindful of how the silence of that time will be received by my audience – the other person or people involved. Will it hurt them? What will that likely communicate about me or my character to them?
That’s important to me in a world where silence is also used as a weapon, a sword that speaks more soundly than words could hope to… communicating judgement, disapproval, or worse yet? Apathy. There is a belief that it takes an effort to expend words on or about someone else. I don’t know that I wholly agree with that. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people I’ve trusted, respected, care for offer promises or words of reassurance that were obliterated with seeming ease soon after. Words are just words (1)… until there aren’t any. When there are no words, you have to look to actions. When there aren’t any? That’s an incredibly cutting form of silence… one so loud it’s almost impossible to ignore. And that, to me, is a failure that lies at the feet of the vanities.
Character and integrity require action. Maybe we’re done with a situation, or a person – and that’s okay – as long as there’s been resolution. If someone was worth forming a relationship with to begin with – be that personal or professional – then we need to be mindful of their needs, sometimes even before our own desire to enjoy the silence when we end it. Because it’s the right thing to do and our actions speak to our character far more than our words about who we are ever really could. At the end of it all, our integrity – our character – is what we’re defined by… what we’re remembered by.
But if we do not act, if we chose to remain silent? Then we risk losing the ability to “come home” to influence the situation and, as was so aptly said in Underworld, silence becomes “the condition [we] accept as the judgment on [our] crimes.” (2) In other words, silence – for whatever reason you choose to keep it – doesn’t still others. They’ll form their own opinions, in the absence of guidance from us, and act in their own accordance. Maybe that’s okay – but maybe not and that’s a risk that must be assessed before ‘going dark.’ Coming back later claiming “hear no evil, see no evil” won’t likely be received as a valid defense for a lack of communication… I think that only works with the three monkeys.
(1) Please read this linked post “Words are for Suckers” by William Tincup. Totally relevant, and brilliant.
(2) real or imagined – by the way, that’s the best line in Underworld, in my opinion.