Silence protects us from our noisy selves and prepares us for the work of God in us. — Joan Chittister in The Monastery of the Heart
I can remember my first day at Fluvanna County High School in rural Virginia. I came in with my assymetrical skater’s hair cut and my totally rad striped pants with embroidered roses and a shirt to match. I felt awesome. . . and I would have been back in North Carolina with my skater/theater/art friends.
But in rural Virginia, artsy was not in. And people laughed. Actually laughed and pointed. “What is she wearing?” “What’s with that hair?” I can still remember standing by the window in my English class that overlooked the smoker’s courtyard and wishing I could be small enough to hide behind a desk.
My response was to do what I had always done in all my awkward years at school – I stayed quiet, sat down in a desk, and took out a book. Written words have always been refuge to me.
In time, I learned that words could be weapons, too. I’d cut others – usually behind their backs – with a sharp wit and razor tongue that left my friends doubled over. This continued into college, Christian college, where I learned more strength of word and left more people scarred with my language, even if they didn’t know I was lashing them.
Somewhere along the way, I learned – or maybe remembered is the better word – how painful words can be. Maybe it was my friend Carrie, who left every dorm room when gossip started, or maybe it was years in an academic environment where everyone seemed to have darts to throw in secret but never in the meetings where these words would be constructive. Somewhere, I remembered that words have power.
But I still slip. I let that hostile Facebook status slide out or shoot that email before I think it through all the way. See, words are easy for me. I can wield them like a rapier. And when I feel threatened or hurt or when fear creeps in, I slice through those feelings by going after someone else. It’s ugly.
So I am learning, again, that silence is often best. Not the cowardly silence that does not speak in the face of injustice or the willfully ignorant silence that chooses to pretend suffering isn’t real because it doesn’t want to upset it’s cushy world. No, this silence is ruminative, slow, deliberate. It’s the space of breath, where I can gather thoughts and feelings, let the air of time simmer them into more reason before I decide if I will speak.
As I watched Facebook erupt last night with the whips of commentary lashed at candidates and parties, as I thought about how many of us, myself included, connect ourselves with those candidates and parties, as I wondered how many of us will walk away with our backs bloody and our tongues sore, I decided to keep silent. I just don’t think that using our tongues as swords to attack each other gets us much more than gore and carnage.
So I will speak when needed to fight injustice, wielding my lexicon to fight the systems and conventions that make it acceptable to tease a young girl who dresses differently or reasonable to pretend that children are not being sold for sex in our towns. But I will not – to the best of my ability – lash out at a person. It hurts us both too much.
When have you found silence to be best?