“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
My well-intentioned parents repeated this injunction so often to my sister and me throughout our childhood, presumably to discourage us from bullying other children and to encourage us to model pro-social behavior for our peers. Words certainly do deliver deep, emotional wounds that can arguably linger far longer in memory and body awareness than the impact of physical blows. Threats, degrading insults, abusive epithets, and aggressive intimidation leave indelible marks on the sensitive psyche of a child—and sometimes that of an adult as well. Excuses and rationalizations that perpetuate generational cycles of abuse do, in fact, need to stop. Public outpouring of concern currently directed at the traumatic impact of bullying and cyber-bullying is long overdue and thankfully seems to be having a constructive impact. In that context, the above cliché about keeping silent seems to makes sense if one believes oneself to be simply incapable of constructive, active kindness toward another person.
But does it actually make sense? In this essay, I may rub a bit against the grain of strong public opinion and suggest the possibility that that silence may often be more psycho-spiritually harmful than active verbal abuse. Few would argue against the notion that recognition by others supports one’s sense of personhood, and close friendship nurtures it. Acts of kindness communicate the message to another person that he or she is seen, recognized, cherished, and loved as they are. Yet, even difficult, challenging people deserve to have their personhood actively affirmed and supported. In fact, they may need that even more than most! If I am ignored because I make people uncomfortable in social situations, and if those around me construe their own silence as being “nice” to me, I receive no reflection of myself through interpersonal actions. I remain essentially invisible as a person despite my strenuous attempts to be seen.
“Silence like a cancer grows.” –Simon & Garfunkel
Larry, a homeless person that I see most days on my walk to work, has often expressed gratitude to me that I stop to talk to him for a few minutes. He shared with me yesterday that he would rather be insulted than ignored. He admitted that he occasionally tries to antagonize people into insulting him—taking guilty, almost cheerful pleasure in firing insults back. I was initially startled by his words, and then I was gobsmacked when I fully understood what he was telling me. Essentially, he was saying that lack of recognition of his existence, or the attempt by all of us to render him invisible through silence and shunning, was experienced by him as more abusive and aversive than active aggression. Moreover, even hostile recognition helped him feel more alive and connected than none at all!
Make no mistake. I do not attempt here to justify or rationalize verbal abuse and bullying. I am trying to make the case that sometimes silence, motivated by a desire to keep the peace, can be an even more insidious and potentially hurtful form of maltreatment. I wish to advocate in existential fashion for at least the occasional choice not to remain silent—to say the difficult thing out loud in the face of strong feelings or reactions. I extend an invitation here to join me in my endeavor to lean into conflicts with others and attempt wherever possible to face difficult and complex interpersonal issues directly and honestly, with integrity. Too often, remaining silent and ignoring someone’s provocative words or behavior in order to preserve a veneer of peace and stability—shying away from conflict in social contexts—can unfortunately perpetuate injustice and harm in those very relationships, some of which we prize highly.
If active abuse as well as silence are both destructive to personhood and connection with others, then intentional, constructive action on behalf of the welfare of others would seem to be the best approach overall. However, on occasion, active kindness is very difficult, if not impossible, until we speak out loud to each other about how we have hurt each other. Fortunately, assertiveness training techniques in interpersonal communication provide a wealth of instruction and information about how to be honest with others without being passive or aggressively hostile. They take practice, but they generally work well. Even so, maybe it is okay sometimes to be a little rude with each other in service of authenticity. Maybe we can occasionally let go of the veneer of fake politeness that we work so feverishly to maintain and instead let it wash away in streaks, like mascara after a run through a rainstorm.
How many work environments turn into a toxic stew of factions, cliques, and excruciatingly awkward and awful interactions because hurt feelings are held back, assumptions and preconceptions are not verified directly, and anger is allowed to fester? No one is willing to risk being perceived as a troublemaker or pot-stirrer.
“True friends stab you in the front.” –Oscar Wilde
How many cherished friendships rot over time due to simple misunderstandings that pile up and are never fully resolved and brought to closure? I recall sadly the precious connections in my life that I have allowed to die. In too many instances, I feared irrevocably hurting the other if I brought up something potentially difficult or challenging. In such situations, my desire to avoid conflict denied to the person their right and freedom to be fully themselves, fiercely and unapologetically.
It is not only other people that we harm through our silence. If I feel that parts of me are unacceptable to the other, I am very limited in how close I can be to him or her. Sadly and ironically, I keep silent for fear of harm to the relationship and fail to see it dying a slow death anyway through disconnection. Fears that are unexpressed and difficult conversations that we refuse to have with loved ones tend to creep around inside us and isolate us by building strong walls of indifference, imprisoning a lonely and disconnected ego, one which is futilely yearning to be a whole and authentic self. We ourselves need to be seen and recognized clearly to experience wholeness.
Mustering our courage, taking the risk, and facing the prospective loss of relationship can be excruciatingly difficult. Yet, the potential reward of a closer rapport with someone who knows us thoroughly, still accepts us, and loves us is a prize well worth the venture. Breaking out of silence and shells of indifference can readily deepen feelings of love and kindness toward each other, leading to inspiring and transformative relationships. We also have increased freedom and power in our social worlds.
I have quite frequently found that I learn the most incredible things from those whom I find challenging. I was once quite eager to surround myself exclusively by individuals who are easy to be with, agree with me all the time, and admire me. Unsurprisingly, I did not evolve during that time. Now those who tell me the things that I find most difficult to hear still do irritate me to no end. They have also presented me with unprecedented opportunities for growth.
As I gazed this evening upon the colorful leaves that begin to fall here at this time of the year, I recalled with gratitude how the earth herself would never dream of withholding from me her bounty and beauty. She unapologetically gives me feedback about my own behaviors, attitudes, and values. If I open my senses fully, lessons are plentiful. Trees, bushes, and grass sip from morning dew even when the rain has not fallen in some time, thriving on surprisingly little moisture at any given time. The garden spider patiently waits under our second floor balcony for the automatic sprinkler system to stop, rebuilding her web every morning and reaping a plentiful harvest from the last flying insects of the year before the cold settles in. That same encroaching chill in the air reminds me that I am not in control of everything. These phenomena show me how my own impulsivity and frustration defeat what I am trying to achieve in my life, when patience and trust yield far better results. How much may we also learn from the other human beings with whom we interact and share this existence if we have the courage to speak openly and honestly with them?
If you have a question about or of someone, consider asking them directly. If you are confused about something a person does, ask for an explanation. If you are curious about a quality or talent they possess, enter into a conversation with them. If a coworker chronically irritates you, consider trying to address it with them. It may, as Jung once said, present an opportunity to learn more about yourself.
It is not an all or nothing choice, and timing is everything. I just feel that polite silence is dangerously overrated.
Blessings of the Autumn Equinox my friends. May the darkening days remind us that the shadows hold riches for us.
— Drake Spaeth