I have never been a quiet person. From the moment of my birth, my parents describe me as having “a good set of lungs.” It’s been a long-standing joke in my family of origin that I have, at times, been bossy and opinionated, but always loud. My voice carries well.
As a writer, I have tried to transfer my speaking voice onto paper. The written word can be either more or less neutral than the speaking voice, depending on interpretation of the audience. But with my background in psychology, I know that tonal inflection and body language really make the message; these account for at least 85% of total communication.
Moving into a place of silence does not happen often in my life. Though the severe introvert in me aches for order and serenity, I do not often have large chunks of time to devote to thought or prayer. Raising a brood of five boisterous children of varying ages and developmental stages, including special needs, means I have come to disciplining myself more and more in my use of language.
Words are often used for defense. We may overshare or overexplain, because we carry a desperate and inherent need to protect ourselves from being misunderstood or rejected. Sometimes loquaciousness is a signal of anxiety: we speak, because we’re nervous or trying to distract ourselves from the fear swelling inside.
There is, or can be, humility in silence, however. This is not always the case, as in the person who uses silence as a weapon to avoid conflict or ignore facing what’s painful or difficult. When silence is a form of custody of the tongue, it is a profound humiliation.
Think of a time in your life when you wanted to defend yourself, but couldn’t. Or when you were so angry you wanted to justify your reactions. Or when you’ve had an incredibly stressful day and just need to vent in a stream of consciousness.
I have been in each of these situations, and more often than not, I am not conscientious about what I say. I do not think carefully before speaking, pausing first to reflect and then pray for guidance from the Holy Spirit. Instead, I just let it all flow freely to whomever is close by, usually my husband, and the damage can be deep and lasting.
Words can either harm or heal. The power of silence is that it carries far more weight than constant chatter. We all know someone who seldom speaks, but when she does, every word is carefully selected and reflects much wisdom (Think: Mother Teresa of Calcutta.). St. Joseph is a popular example of a saint who spoke not one word in Scripture, yet whose life mirrored exemplary virtue.
It is in imitating the saints who intentionally refrained from speaking when they wanted to, or who spoke up when they would rather have remained silent, that demonstrates to the rest of us how and when to use our words.
Sometimes it is helpful to turn to the Word Himself. I frequently think about how God the Father breathed His Word, and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. That is power. That is the gift we, too, are granted, but we must use it cautiously and wisely rather than out of impulsivity or volatility.
The reason silence can be so humbling to many of us is that there are occasions when God might want us to listen rather than deliberate. He may want us to allow the other person to believe they are right, when, in fact, we may have more information on the subject at hand or even be an expert in the field.
The purpose of silence is so that we might first ponder, then discern what we are called to do: speak or listen? More often than not, the answer is to listen first. Silence carries immense power, because it is from the quiet that the best and clearest messages are formed and delivered. When we quiet our minds and hearts and ask ourselves, what is the best response? God will grant us clarity in that moment.
And if we are meant to speak, we speak first from charity, from kindness. If we are meant to listen, we do so with fully receptive hearts. Silence gives birth to humility, because our human nature is somehow tamed and tempered to first receive, then to give.