I trained to talk. Oldest of seven children, I bantered as a toddler, hobnobbing with grown-ups. I helped the younger ones form vocabulary, first words like “Momma. Dadda. Look. No. Up.” In school, we learned, “you’ll be graded on class participation.” No problem for me, an extrovert. I knew how to speak up, how to raise my hand and answer questions, even without knowing the answers. As a young adult, I taught school, verbalizing lesson plans, reading aloud to third graders. Later I worked as a psychotherapist, practicing verbal interventions, empathic grunts like, “uh-huh, mmm, hmm, oh” and then words to prompt more words from clients, “Can you say more?” Or “You’ve been through a lot. Is that all?”
I know how to talk and to open doors to more talking. But during a pastoral care internship, I made a mistake by gossiping, which turned my focus to the power of silence, to keeping my mouth shut. I knew, from clinical training, that therapists don’t disclose names of people they see in sessions or say what they’ve heard. I had signed many confidentiality waivers.
One day, in my pastoral rounds, I sat with the family of a dying woman. Her children gathered bedside, held hands, squeezed palms. There was only reverent, respectful silence. No one spoke, not them, not me.
After the woman’s death, after sitting in the hushed hospital chapel with them, I drove home, felt their grief, and held it quietly and in close, as I should have. Then, breaking rules, I drove to tell my dad that I had recognized one of her children as a popular and well-known professional athlete. My Dad, a surgeon, knew confidentiality. He had never spoken about a patient. I therefore excused my ethical breach by justifying, “Dad’ll never tell anyone.”
I gushed, “Dad, he was there. I talked to him. He looks just like he looks on tv. He’s really nice.”
The next internship day, I rode the elevator, wondered how the grieving family must feel and read the sign on the wall, “Please respect the privacy of patients by not talking about them in the halls or elevators.“
My gut wrenched with the restlessness of, “I have to tell my supervisor,” which I did moments later. He said, “I’m glad you told me. I can’t tell you it’s ok. I can tell you people often lose jobs over this.”
It takes wake-up-call moments for some of us to learn hard lessons. I began to study silence, and to practice. I am not good at not talking. I am not good at letting others initiate speech. I am good at asking questions and responding to them. Yet I have come to know the value of sitting back, of listening first, of waiting. I’m thinking this season about the possibility and power in “all is calm” as I hear the hymn “Silent Night.” I’m remembering being told that we have two ears and one mouth, to listen twice as much as we talk. I’m recalling the wisdom of a friend, “The quieter you are, the more you hear. You can’t learn while talking. You learn while listening.” I’m wondering, in the midst of December songs, bells ringing, hustle at stores, clamoring sales, and “here’s my gift list,” what if we took a few moments to touch the sound of “shhhhh” every now and then, knowing the touch and sound of tapping and typing emails and texts is not silence? What if we practice the words of Mahatma Gandhi? “Speak only if it improves upon the silence.” Imagine.