Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Gift of Silence


I’ve noticed many people are not ok with silence. They feel pressured to fill the space up, to say something. I noticed this particularly this morning, listening to the radio. The announcer was updating everyone on celebrity news and made a very stupid comment about one celebrity who is expecting. Nothing mean, just very unintelligent and clearly not something she thought out. And it occurred to me that in her job she is under pressure to fill the space between songs with words, and that probably leads to a lot of thoughtless babbling. My husband commented that sports announcers at times have the same problem and that once he heard a sports announcer say “Usually the team that scores the most points wins.” Again, not mean, just very silly. I think it’s similar to the principle that nature abhors a vacuum. Most people abhor silence and will say anything to fill it up.

In day to day life this often becomes a problem when people are suffering loss or pain. People around them are uncomfortable and don’t know what to say, and so they say things that are stupid and often hurtful. I’ve had many people relay some thoughtless comment or another to me (top candidates: You’ll look back on this and laugh. She’s in a better place now. I know just how you feel. This is really for the best.) These innocuous sounding comments are like salt in a wound or like razors to the soul. I’ve heard some suffering people threaten to break off relationships over these well-intentioned but painful comments.

For those who are suffering, I will generally offer this thought. “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Known as Hanlon’s razor, this quote from Robert J. Hanlon is often helpful in reminding yourself that hurtful remarks by others aren’t usually meant that way. When you are already hurting, don’t inflict further pain on yourself by breaking off relationships with well intentioned people who can’t cope with pain or silence. Instead, gently tell them how to be helpful. Or just change the topic all together.

For those faced with suffering, who don’t know what to say, I offer this advice. Tell the suffering individual that you care. Ask them if there is anything you can do to help. And then say nothing. Don’t leave. Just offer the gift of your silent, supportive presence. You’ll be astonished at what a treasure you will bring.