The Many Sides of Silence
They say that silence is golden. I guess sometimes it truly is.
There is something precious about a relationship that has reached the point where two individuals can sit side-by-side on a couch, ride in a car, or take a walk and not have the need to fill every second with chatter. Instead they find that there is a simple joy and comfort in just being together.
There are days when intense personal interaction has drained this borderline introvert’s reserves or when my children’s energy has far surpassed my own and I find great relief in riding alone in the car with no radio. The silence calms my nerves and recharges my batteries.
There is something sacred about letting go and entering the silence of prayer and worship. We are so seldom still enough or quiet enough to hear those whispers to our heart or feel those gentle nudges to our soul. To enter that kind of silence is a rare and precious gift.
But there are other sides to silence.
I’ve used silence as a mask. I somehow got the idea that you should always show your best face to others. For years, back when I was stuck in a miserable marriage, there was no best face for me to show that was honest. So my best face became silence. I said nothing about my misery. I did not ask for help, or comfort, or support. To this day my mom says that it came as a complete shock to her when my husband walked out the door, leaving me with a 10 week old baby. By the time he left, I had lived in that misery for almost two years. Damn effective mask, wouldn’t you say?
And since I’m revisiting some of those old memories, let me add that there is yet another side to silence. It can be used as a weapon. It was my ex’s weapon of choice. He didn’t like my family or friends. When they came to the house or when we were invited out, he refused to participate in conversation. This wasn’t just a shy man not knowing what to say. It was a rude man, who refused to answer direct questions with anything other than a grunt or a look of disdain. Soon friends quit calling and no one dropped by the house anymore. I became hostage to his silence alone. He would go days, a week even, without acknowledging a single thing I said, without responding to a single question. I felt invisible. Worthless. Unlovable. Less than human. He could’ve been a guard at Gitmo. It was absolutely torturous. I think I would rather have been hit. At least then he would’ve had to acknowledge my existence. You can’t hit something that isn’t there. At least then I would have felt real and important enough to lash out against. Who knew that silence could hurt worse than slap in the face or a punch to the gut? A bullet through the heart couldn’t have been any more effective. Or any more painful.
I knew that there was still a spark of me left on the day I quit asking him questions, begging for attention, or trying to discuss ways to save the relationship. I became silent with him on the day my love broke. The sound of it breaking seemed to me to be louder than the crash of thunder following a lightning strike and the impact of the break was so strong that if felt as if the lightning had indeed struck me. The pain of it took my breath away and literally caused me to double over, but the peace that followed immediately after was life-giving. I became silent, only this time it wasn’t a mask anymore. It was the realization that the relationship was irreparably broken and I no longer had any desire to fix it. It was my acknowledgement to myself that I wasn’t invisible, worthless, or unlovable. It was accepting that living life as a single person was an infinitely better choice than living life as a miserable married person. It was the beginning of the journey back to myself.
To this day, however, I still struggle with silence within relationships. It makes no difference to me if it is a family relationship, a professional relationship, a friendship, or a romance. I have an intense need to communicate, to understand what is going on in the other person’s mind. Unexplained silence makes me uncomfortable, miserable even. To me, to be ignored is the ultimate slap in the face. Knowing nothing for sure but my own life experience, I wonder what the other person is hiding. Why the mask of silence? Since human nature keeps us from wanting to hide good things from people in our lives, I automatically think the worst.
Only that’s not really the worst. The worst is this: is silence being used as a weapon, a tool of manipulation, a means of punishment? Am I becoming invisible, worthless, or unlovable again? Seldom do I allow myself to think the best: that the silence is just a time-out, a regrouping, a recharging of batteries. I guess when one has been victim to a particular weapon, that weapon will always look dangerous regardless of whose hand is holding it.
Yes, silence is golden. But sometimes it is a gold-plated assault rifle.