I’m just going to come right out with this one: I remained silent about something big the other day, and I can’t stop kicking myself for it. It’s a small world, so I’m not going to tell the story in detail, but I’ll try to explain what happened in a more generic sense.
The context was a social setting in which a serious issue had been lurking in the background across a series of several conversations with a friend. I’m sure that both of us recognized that the issue would need to be addressed, and I certainly knew how I felt about it, but I had waited to make an affirmative statement until I could better tell what my friend was thinking.
Simply put, I didn’t want to go first.
However, my game of stealth backfired when my friend asked me a direct question about the issue, making her own position quite clear. With nowhere left to verbally run or hide, I had to come up with a response—and fast. Analyzed in retrospect, my thought process at the moment must have looked something like a ping-pong match:
Oh, so that’s what she thinks!
Well, there’s that mystery solved…
Wait! That’s not what I think. Oh no!
And she’s looking for confirmation;
she wants to hear that we think similarly.
But we don’t!
If I just agree, I’ll lose this chance to be clear.
But if I state my mind,
she’ll know that we disagree,
and it will be awkward!
Because the outcome of our conversation was not merely academic but would actually have affected my life, there was more than rhetoric at stake. At this point, I found myself in a deep mental jam. My desire to maintain harmony and a comfortable relationship was in direct conflict with another voice that was telling me to seize the moment and say what I thought. After a brief struggle, the latter instinct gave way to the former, and I remained silent.
Of course, I didn’t actually remain silent; I murmured some sort of response like Of course; couldn’t agree more! and probably even laughed a bit just to show how truly “chill” I was with the whole situation. But inside, I was anything but relaxed. And as for my words, I might just as well have said nothing at all.
I haven’t been able to get over it since.
And when I review the incident in my mind (which I’m all too prone to doing), what amazes me most is that I can hear that silence, rushing by me like a train in the night. There continues to be a gaping hole between what I said and what I should have said.
We’re often told that words can’t be unsaid, but how often do we acknowledge that we can’t take back silence? I know that life is full of moments like this, and I’m fairly confident that I usually do a better job than I did this time. If nothing else, I know how queasy I feel when I fail to say something I should have, and that keeps me from slipping into that error too often. At times, though, some more immediate concern (conformity, nerves, acceptance, panic) takes control, and silence echoes in my mind (if not in the room).
Victorian (and pre-Victorian) fiction is made of moments like these. The entire set of Jane Austen’s novels could be reduced to seven pages if her protagonists simply said what they were thinking. Or take Trollope’s Barchester Towers, which probably wouldn’t even get off the ground if Eleanor simply told her father that she was not interested in marrying the odious Mr. Obadiah Slope. In such cases, silence functions in favor of delicacy and suspense.
Most of the time, though, silence is a sign of fear, and that’s why it has the potential to shame us as it does. In the situation I described above, I know that I was silent because I feared the fallout that would follow telling the truth. I chose to prevent immediate discomfort and instead I now feel continued unease. Was it worth it?
Well, was it?
I’m not sure. I could see this as a situation in which I didn’t have much to gain by saying my piece, since it would only have revealed disagreement and (given the context) would not have successfully advanced my interests. At the same time, I could see this as a situation in which I didn’t have much to lose; honesty coupled with maturity would not have been the end of the world, and may have even changed the game in an unexpected way. At most, answering truthfully could have caused me to lose a friend, while dodging the question certainly left me with a nasty memory that may stick around for a while. On the one hand, the possibility of a friendship broken; on the other, the certainty of regret.
Which is worse?
If you can answer that question without much thought, you’re certainly wiser than me. Moments like this come and go, and each one presents the same dilemma. Each time, we tell ourselves that we have learned from the experience and will know what to do the next time. And yet it never seems to get any easier. Perhaps this is because the calculus is always the same.
In this particular case, I probably won’t get another chance to say what I should have said at the time, and I’ll just have to live with that fact. Afterwards, it’s easy enough to rationalize the situation or blink away its memory, but the doubt returns: What if I had not been silent?
An ancient philosophical puzzle asks, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” In my conversation with my friend, whatever I was thinking—whatever I wanted—fell in the forest, and no one heard it.
Yet to my mind and no other, its silent passing made the loudest possible sound.