I admire people who only speak when they have something meaningful to say. I’m from the opposite school of thought: We must leave no thought unexpressed! I’m so busy talking I’m usually the last person to finish the meal.
Lately, though, I’ve learned the eloquence of silence.
Sure, I still have profound insights and interesting stories to share but what’s the point? Swapping stories can be fun but is it really conversation? People love talking about their health problems, for example, especially during the pandemic. If I talk about my own aches and pains, someone else will talk about theirs. If someone describes the minor car accident they had, another person will bring up their own rear-ender. If we start talking about urban violence, everyone will come up with their own scary examples.
For most, our favorite topic is ourselves. While someone talks about their Christmas dinner disaster, listeners are busy rehearsing their own stories. Sometimes it gets competitive. People top each other with how their Christmas was even worse. Dwelling on the negative is one of our favorite sports.
A couple will return from a fabulous trip to Hawaii and lead off with what a pain it was to rent a car. During our recent trip to Michigan, we suffered a minor mishap. It could easily have been our lead story but we didn’t feel any need to share it. If a minor mishap story isn’t funny, it’s not worth telling.
Besides dwelling on the negative, people love to relate a topic to their own experience. It doesn’t matter how tenuous the connection, the subject is only relevant when it relates to them. This may stem from a need for attention. It can come from insecurity, or simply a need to fill the silence. We’ve all said stupid things because silence made us nervous.
I learned the value of silence, though, many years ago. I used to meet with a friend weekly for pizza and beer. My friend used these get-togethers to pour out his problems. In the beginning, I offered advice and solutions. After a while, I simply listened. My silence was much more eloquent than my “wisdom.”
Recently, a woman was telling me about her disappointment at not getting a job. When I offered to help her find a similar job, she did not appreciate it. She had simply wanted to express her frustration, she wasn’t looking for someone to rescue her.
Silence is part of the spirit of the Christmas season. The prime example is how Joseph took the news when he learned his fiancée was pregnant. He never questioned God’s plan; instead, he covered for what would have been Mary’s shame. Joseph is mentioned in all four gospels but not a word he said was ever recorded. Talk about the strong, silent type!
Silence is what we need when the world is full of cultural, social and commercial noise. Sometimes we find it in the relative quiet of a church service. Sometimes we find it on a quiet walk. I recently strolled through Altenheim and was amazed at the improvements. All the decrepit buildings are gone, replaced by freshly planted grass. Imagine how much peace this greenspace could bring us?
At this year’s Christmas feast, I’ll be a bit quieter at the table. If we discuss Christmas music, though, I’ll insist that “Silent Night” is still the most popular carol. I will propose a toast using the words of the famous Japanese poet, Katakana Gohan: “Words are meaningless, silence is comfortable, when you’re with your friends.”
And I’ll finish my food at the same time as everyone else.
John Rice, who grew up in Oak Park and is now a Forest Park resident, writes a weekly column for our sister publication, the Forest Park Review.