“WORDS IN THE HEART CANNOT BE TAKEN.” —Terry Pratchett, ‘Feet of Clay’
I’m scared that in the interconnected information age it’s easier and easier to hurt people remotely, and harder and harder to love and help one another remotely. I’m scared that people seem to believe that words can’t really hurt someone, at the same time they believe that words can take the place of action in healing and helping. I know that words can hurt what words can’t heal. I know that words can break what words can’t fix. I know people often lie when they say what they wish were true, what sounds good, what people want to hear and believe, but that they don’t often lie when they say cruel things or report cruelty at the hands of others—but we have it so backwards. We believe what we want to hear and disbelieve what makes us uncomfortable, as if comfort has ever been a sound truth-ometer. Lies and wishful thinking are so much more comfortable, that’s why they persist; it takes effort to see the truth, and to do something of worth.
In my experience, words alone can’t heal or save or prove anything. But words can, for sure, break and hurt and ruin people’s lives, relationships, and hearts. Especially words that reek of superficial niceness to hide the nasty truth we’d rather not face.
We communicate so much, so transiently, so fast and furious and constant and thoughtlessly. I see people developing thicker and thicker skins in order to participate in this exchange, and consequently losing empathy, compassion, and even the merest hint vulnerability and emotion while attacking and devaluing those things in others. People are nurturing sociopathic ways of relating in ourselves and each other. Then we wonder why we feel so alone and unloved, and too ashamed of those things to risk speaking them and getting attacked by people who loathe and fear those things in themselves.
We talk so fast and so much, and more and more and more, too fast for even our brains to catch up, and not only our attention spans but our memory and tolerance are shortening like leg tendons rarely used. As antagonistic as people are becoming I also see us getting attached to that antagonism as the only alternative to silence and solitude.
Fearing those things is a fear of ourselves, of meeting ourselves in the mirror gate in ‘The Neverending Story’—where one is face to face with the naked truths of who we are that we flood our lives with signal noise to numb, drown out, alienate. Someone who is vulnerable, emotional, flawed, frighteningly susceptible to all manner of ills and damage, and worst of all, mortal. And always and ever alone, no matter how close we get to others and what bonds we form.
People die. People change. People betray. People say the words that can never be taken back, do things in a moment that destroy a lifetime of trust and closeness. The world changes and things we count on vanish or stop working. It changes so fast we can’t keep up, and so everything goes faster, with less and less thought and reflection and memory, tinier and tinier circles until we’re repeating the same mistakes like a skipping record, out of reach in that dreaded place of solitude and self.
There are qualities to silence. There is the silence of nothing to say because it’s pointless, it only leads to recursive hurt. There is the silence of waiting for judgment, waiting for the truth, waiting to see what consequences are coming. There is the silence before the storm, and the silence after devastating disaster.
There is the silence of comfort. There is the silence of being all right exactly as you are with another person, needing neither to take attention nor to give it. There is the silence that is more valuable and loving than words can ever be, a silence more deeply honest than an embrace, the silence that trusts you to know and ask for what you need rather than anticipate in an anxious way and try clumsily to read minds and fix it. There is the silence of being with someone in their darkest hour and demanding no attention or emotional care for yourself, of holding the flashlight so they can keep walking, of waiting in the wings for their heart-stoppingly perilous feat of lone acrobatics or encounter with a wild animal to conclude with your friend alive and whole.
There is the silence when you are in despair. There is the silence when you have stopped talking because no one will listen, or because all the attention draw when you speak is predatory or abusive. There is the silence that is forced repeatedly on you by things more powerful than you until you are exhausted and locked in a bathroom stall muffling your own sobs lest anyone catch you at the crime of emotion or take it as a personal invitation to ignore your boundaries and ‘fix’ you because of their own discomfort with your feelings.
There is the silence of loneliness for the ears and lips that would never shame or reject you. There is the silence of longing and grief.
There is the silence of holding it all in because you fear drowning in it.
There is the silence of not even knowing where to begin.
There is the silence of wanting to call someone out for inappropriate words or behavior but not knowing how, not knowing how they and others around you will react, not knowing what the consequences will be for you. There is the silence of watching someone hurt a weaker or more vulnerable person, and fearing to share in that hurt, and telling yourself it’s really something they need to do for themselves and patting yourself on the back for respecting them, lying to yourself about your own fear and insecurity. There is the silence of the bystander who feels that doing nothing leaves one guiltless and blameless and uninvolved. The silence of the watcher who could have done something, the silence that may haunt you for the rest of your life in survivor guilt.
There is the silence of waiting for a performance or piece of music to begin, or a journey, or for a friend to arrive. There is the silence of waiting for an opportunity, a job, a project to start. There is the silence of waiting to begin to perform, to create, to speak, to sing. There is the silence after witnessing something beautiful and moving, the silence after a great effort. There is the bittersweet silence after a visit or trip is over. There is the silence after a loved life is over, of not knowing what now.
There is the satisfied silence after dancing, after enjoyable sex. There is the shocked silence after a wreck, after violence witnessed, survived, or done.
There is the silence we mistake for copacetic which instead is the silence of desperation, of someone fighting too hard to survive, so at risk and in danger, to say anything about it. There is the silence that we find out too late was not good silence, but the silence of someone who has been painfully somehow excised from a sense of love and belonging. There is the silence of no note left explaining why, as if an explanation might make things better for those who left behind—or maybe teach us what to do and what not to do with the people we love if we want them not to give us their silence that can never be broken, the music of their voice and sometimes just comfortable silent presence that will never again be heard.
There is the silence of a relationship damaged beyond repair and the silence of one comfortable as a favorite shirt. There is the silence of too much difference and not enough understanding. There is silent rage, silent laughter, silent tears, silent joy. There is the silence of not knowing what to say and the silence of having nothing to say and the silence of too much to say. There is the silence of distrust and fear. The silence of inheld breath when danger is near and the least sound could mean our death or dismemberment.
There is the silence of a moment when your world has turned upside down and things you thought you could count on aren’t there anymore.
There’s the silence of the only thing being left to say is something that no one wants to hear. There is silence of passive aggression, and the silence of dealing with someone who is passive-aggressive and can never be trusted no matter how much time elapses or how much you feel things are resolved.
There is the silent rebellion and revolt that is the only thing left to people without power, people unheard, people silenced and made invisible and unimportant by those who hold the power.
There is the silence we have a right to when anything we say can and will be used against us, not only in the slow, expensive, and ineffective courts of law; but the swifter, harsher, and more terrifyingly powerful courts of gossip and media and social media.
There are the silences Tillie Olsen writes about in ‘Silences,’ where women writers, especially poor women, were not published and shared, and women were discouraged from even speaking their truths, and so were relegated to diaries and letters and stories kept secret and underground. For all my years of silence both as a child and an adult, I have almost always been writing without sharing, but I’ll come back to that later.
There is also this silence: “It’s quiet. …Too quiet.” (Levity and humor are hard for me to come by these days, even this cheap rimshot kind, but that’s another story and will be told at another time.)
Then there is what I consider the worst silence of all. The silence that is increasingly prevalent and damaging our capacity to hear and be heard. The silence that is full of superficial noise. What Caitlin Moran is talking about when she writes, “It’s amazing how much we can find to say when we can’t say the one thing that really matters.”
All the nervous words we use to fill up every single silence until we can’t tolerate, listen to, or understand any silence at all. The silence that is so loud that it’s killing genuine communication and leaving us with empty shells. This frantic speed and signal noise that corrupts words like ‘friend’ until we don’t know what it means, what it’s worth, or what it takes to practice actual friendship.
The artificial limitations of characters and words we can post and comment and read makes it easier for everyone to flood every outlet for self-expression and pack it so full of words that meaning and understanding and well-thought-out expressions are squeezed right out. We have broken communication into such tiny quick fragments that it’s as irritating to someone in search of realness and meaning as being stung repeatedly by wasps, or crushed to near asphyxiation in a club full of sweaty, frantically grinding MDMA- and alcohol-filled bodies unable to hear or see each other through the haze of epileptic lights and air-raid percussion.
Important note: sometimes I am equally crushed and stung by all the words I don’t say.
There are a lot of silences. I’ve spent a lot of time with them, learning to hear their nuances and music. There’s John Cage’s three-movement composition 4'33" for any instrument or combination of instruments, where the performer or performers do not play their instruments during the entire duration—at the first performance, four minutes and thirty-three seconds.
In the 1990s many CD albums released had a very long gap of silence after the last listed track, and then bonus audio at the end for listening all the way through. Sometimes these were more melancholic, contemplative, and sparse versions of a key song on the album, as with Sarah McLachlan’s piano solo of ‘Possession’ on her album ‘Fumbling Towards Ecstasy,’ Olive’s ‘You’re Not Alone’ on ‘Extra Virgin,’ and Balligomingo’s ‘Erase’ on ‘Beneath the Surface.’ This reward for patience is mirrored in movies with bonus scenes at the end of credits, and besides being neat, I think these things reward patience that is too easily eroded in an increasingly fast-paced, breathless, endless stream of information and communication.
Some of my silences.
I spent a lot of time in silence because I wasn’t heard, or because the punishment for speaking up was too unilateral, harsh, and overpowering. I listened. The funny thing about practicing that much silence is that I became something of a blank wall, an empty mask. I was praised for my listening. People would sometimes forget I was there, especially in groups, but I would still be hearing and thinking about everything. Some people fell in love with my silence, because it made them feel important, like everything they had to say was worth listening to and was all right with them. Some people saw my silence as aloofness, or judgment, and would gossip about me, or target me for bullying simply because I wasn’t behaving like everyone else and filling the air with superficial noise.
The other thing I noticed, and continue to experience to this day, is quite often when I am silent that much of the time, when I start to speak, everyone shuts up and turns to me. At first that felt hostile, terrifying, intimidating, considering how much badness had happened to me for any word that made anyone uncomfortable.
Eventually I was able to step out of that and see it happening, and think about it. I spend a lot of time considering the possible consequences of speaking, but also a lot of time thinking about how to say something so as not to trigger backlash. I also mean what I say, and I don’t speak up if I haven’t spent considerable time thinking about and learning about a subject. The rarity of my spoken words gave them an aura of mystique and possible value for their scarcity. And because of that, people listened far more intensely as well as just pausing their own contributions.
Language has its limitations, its pitfalls and misunderstandings. I have despaired sometimes that I’ve devoted so much of my life to words, reading and writing and self-taught from a very young age, frantic to communicate and often defeated by others’ failure or unwillingness. I guess I hoped in my heart of hearts that eventually I could find the right combination of words and people would understand me, would accept me, would leave of hurting me at least, would help me meet my needs and genuinely connect with the parts of me that felt most lost and alone.
Sometimes my silence was so total I wasn’t even writing, because I felt I had been betrayed and let down by the words I gave my life and hope to. Those were the silences that were the most nearly-lethal. If I’m not writing, I’m dying.
I have used so many words to talk about silences, which seems oxymoronic. But often times I have not appreciated a thing until I listen to someone who has appreciated something in great depth and wrote feelingly about it. Though words often can’t heal and fix, words can foster appreciation in me for things I otherwise felt no connection to.
And sometimes the words written in analysis of something become far more dear and important to me than the thing itself. Take the at-times baffling cultural phenomenon of Stephenie Meyers’ ‘Twilight’ series. For me, Cleolinda Jones’s writings about them (and here) changed my life and challenged my understanding about works of art made in innocent disregard that tap into something primal and shared and perhaps a little frightening and secret—like painting obsessive stalker behavior as romantic. (Honestly, I wish she would make her works into a book, I would buy the hell out of it with my last dime.)
I have spent a lot of time in silence, and in appreciation of and reflection upon silence. Silence can be dangerous and frightening. Silence can lead to ‘but he seemed so nice and normal’ from the neighbors. Silence can also mean safety and survival. And silence can be peaceful and calm. Silence can also be fluffy ignorance or superficiality.
And there are silences I have been witness and participant to that are heart-stoppingly gorgeous and powerful. And I know that for all the silences I have known, and labor to describe here, there are more silences that others have tasted and swum in that I may never know and appreciate either in wonder or fear.
One thing I know is true for me is that no silence I have ever known was empty. Silence sometimes contained far more vastness and intensity than all the cacophony humanity can produce.
And where words can hurt what words can’t heal, the first level of validation is just listening. I love validation, having grown up in an environment of invalidation. And I finally understand why people fell in love with my silence, because feeling heard can be the most healing thing of all for me.
Here are three stories of the healing and connective power of silences:
True Friends (traditional Zen koan)
A long time ago in China there were two friends, one who played the harp skillfully and one who listened skillfully.
When the one played or sang about a mountain, the other would say, “I can see the mountain before us.”
When the other played about water, the listener would exclaim, “Here is the running stream!”
But the listener fell sick and died. The first friend cut the strings of his harp and never played again. Since that time the cutting of harp strings has always been a sign of intimate friendship.
From ‘Otherland: City of Golden Shadow’ by Tad Williams
He fell silent.
“Because the string broke for me…” Renie repeated. The quietness of the sorrow, its very understatement, made her own feelings of loss come rushing up inside her. Four weeks—a full month now. Her baby brother had been sleeping for a month, sleeping like the dead. A sob shook her body and tears forced their way out. She tried to push the misery back, but it would not be suppressed. She wept harder. She tried to speak, to explain herself to !Xabbu, but couldn’t. To her embarrassment and horror, she realized she had lost control, that she was having a helpless crying fit on a public bench. She felt naked and humiliated.
!Xabbu did not put his arms around her, or tell her over and over that things would be fine, that everything would work out. Instead, he seated himself beside her on the smooth plastic seat and took her hands in his, then waited for the storm to pass.
It did not pass quickly. Every time Renie thought it was over, that she had regained control over her emotions, another convulsion of misery broke across her and set her weeping again. Through tear-blurred eyes she saw another busload of passengers delivered to the curb. Several stared at the tall, weeping woman being comforted by a little Bushman in an antique suit. The idea of how odd she and !Xabbu must look tripped her up; soon she was laughing as well, although the weeping had not stopped or even weakened. A small, separate part of her that seemed to hover somewhere in the center of the maelstrom wondered if she would ever stop, or if she would be stuck here like a hung program, switching back and forth from hilarity to grief until the sky grew dark and everyone went home.
At last it ended—more from fatigue than any recovery of control, Renie noted with disgust. !Xabbu released her hands. She could not look at him yet, so she reached into her coat pocket and found a crumpled piece of tissue she had used earlier to blot her lipstick, then did her best to dry her face and wipe her nose. When she did meet her friend’s eyes, it was with a kind of defiance, as though daring him to take advantage of her weakness.
“Is the sadness less painful now?”
She turned away again. He seemed to think it was perfectly natural to make an idiot of yourself out in front of the Durban Outskirt Medical Facility. Maybe it was. The shame had already diminished, and was now only a faint reproving voice at the back of her mind.
“I’m better,” she said. “I think we missed our bus.
!Xabbu shrugged. Renie leaned over and took his hand in hers and squeezed it, just for a moment. “Thank you for being patient with me.”