Humans have a rare gift. We have developed a language of words, with which we can convey huge chunks of knowledge. I can say ‘The bag is behind the table over there’, and the listener, if they speak the same language, will know where to look. Language replaces mime. It also replaces the time necessary to discover something for ourselves. A partner who admits they are being unfaithful, saves their partner the time and effort necessary to discover that for themselves.
That last example reminds us that language is also a mixed blessing. We contain, within our mind-body organisms, a whole host of secrets. Walking along the street, we might think to ourselves ‘That person is pretty’, or ‘That person is ugly’. But we do not, normally, shout out exactly what we are thinking at every moment. For one thing, we would always be shouting, broadcasting our thought-flow. For another thing, our thoughts are not always that easy to articulate. We may be thinking ‘That person is plain, but they seem pretty to me because they remind me of someone… now, who is it? Who is it?’
Speech, to be accurate, needs, sometimes, to be long. When a truth is subtle, then it is right to take time to express it. Those who believe in being brief and direct, do not understand what directness really is. Finding a direct path to a complex inner thought does not require brevity. It may require a whole novel, or a lifetime of poetry. To gain access, we need to find and fashion a good verbal key, not just try to blow up the door.
So to the question: speak or be silent? Silence is certainly a virtue, many a time. If we don’t speak, we don’t suffer the risk of saying something we can’t take back. It is the low-risk option, often used by shy people out of caution. It is also celebrated among some monastic orders as the way to go.
ADVANTAGES OF SILENCE
Silence certainly has its advantages. As an exercise, an intentional period of silence can be quite enlightening. For a while, we are unable to correct the world with our infinite wisdom. Our Superman superpower – to spread our truth – is gone. We have to find other ways to deal with our wish to correct the world. We have to leave it be, and be patient.
Although silence limits our ability to help with consolation and advice, it does teach us to listen. We have to hear others without jumping in. It can be quite a humbling experience to realise what we have not been listening to, because we are so eager to speak.
THE ART OF SPEAKING
At the end of the day, though, language does exist. And it’s powerful. Once we have learned our home language well, we can even hold whole conversations in our heads, without once consulting the outside world for a response. Anxious people know this well – the constant buzz of words that can invade the mind isn’t funny, and forms part of many compulsive disorders.
What is it, from a mental health perspective, that makes talking therapy so valuable? Why don’t we just sit silently with one another? Or hug?
Well, firstly, there is something healing about finding a sequential narrative for our thoughts. Some people describe it as like doing the laundry in their head, turning a smelly mess of thoughts into something neatly ironed and folded. Words do that. They have to be in sequence, and so we are forced to tidy ourselves up. Yes, it means we create simplifications of our thought. But it also means we spend time filtering, choosing, collating, honing down, until we are somewhere near our truth.
Secondly, once we have language, then two people have the ability to sit together and go on a journey. The journey can be intellectual, or emotional, or both. One person may start a thought, and the other may offer help to finish it. Or one person may ask a question, which is like dropping a pebble into the lake of the other person’s mind. We feel the ripples, and then we offer an answer based on our feelings. Talking can be non-contact conflict, or non-physical lovemaking. We invest in relationships through words, fight battles, move closer, or further away. We position ourselves.
There is no one way. Sometimes we may be silent, sometimes talkative. It’s all in the mix of what it is to be human. I can use a period of silence to reflect. But I can also use a time of talking, or writing, to learn and grow. Language is a rather surprising gift, that brings us into the world in a new way. It allows us to relate without physical force, and can therefore be an instrument of peace. It gives us a model world to play with in our minds, and to share with others. Perhaps, though, we can remember, in our silences, that language is not an easy or particularly direct road to truth, and that patience, and listening, (and even just being without words,) have a place.