The proverbs of Seneca the younger provide the title and the lesson for consideration, “The great thing is to know when to speak and when to keep quiet.” I make this statement and write on this lesson, not because I am good at knowing when to speak and when to stay silent, but in the hopes of learning more perfectly when to speak and when to talk. In reviewing my K-12 report cards, the ones my parents had to sign, the most frequent comment is knowing when to shut up, closely followed by “Does not play well with others.” The latter is a badge of honor; I have never played well with others!
But, knowing when to speak and when not to speak is a challenge, and in observing people, I find I might not be the only person afflicted with a lack of knowledge on this topic. My wife is a perfect example of someone who knows when to speak and when to stay silent. She has mastered the art of saying the exact word in season someone needs to hear and claims manners and discernment have honed her abilities.
Charles de Lint is quoted on educating children, saying in part, “Teach them to learn how to see and ask questions.” The greatest teachers I can recall easily are those who taught me to either perceive differently or how to ask questions. Long have I desired to return these lessons and remain enthusiastic about finding the opportunities to teach. I often quote and consider the lessons taught by Henry Chester, who said, “Enthusiasm is the greatest asset in the world. It beats money, power, and influence. It is nothing more or less than faith in action.” While appearing paradoxical, enthusiasm and learning when to speak and stay silent are anything but contradictory, and this is the point and the lesson for your consideration.
Why do we speak?
Of all the questions asked me in my K-12 journey, the number one question has to be an iteration of the following: “Why are you talking?” I never could understand when to shut up. Worse, there were plenty of times when my refusal to shut up would worsen the punishment, even though I considered the teacher’s actions immoral, unethical, or plain wrong. For example, in 12th grade, Mr. Moro’s class, Camden-Rockport High School, Camden, Maine. I had been a student of this school for a grand total of 1 day; this was the second class on my second day. My first meeting with Mr. Moro, who, very clearly stated, “This is his classroom, his castle, and in his castle, he was king and demanded respect. To which I firmly replied, NO! He sent me to the principal’s office and said I would not return until he had a parent/teacher conference. Being emancipated, I told him he would have to speak with me, and he could fax me! I still have no idea what a senior class advisor is or what they do, but apparently, I had to appease Mr. Moro if I wanted to graduate.
Why was I speaking in this incident; I was not going to be pushed or bullied by what I considered at the time a pompous moron. I needed to change how I perceived Mr. Moro as a person. I graduated high school, Mr. Moro never became a friend, but we did learn how to get along with each other. Yes, I ate some crow and had to chip away at my ego. After graduating and traveling to Advanced Individual Training for the US Army, I got a nice letter from Mr. Moro. One of the reasons we speak is we feel put upon and do not know how to extricate ourselves, or in my case, extricate my foot from my mouth.
Another reason we speak is a desire to say something, but how often have we opened our mouths without forming the thought entirely, and our mouth is running way faster than our brains, common sense, and self-preservation? In my case, way too often. Several comedians call this an older person’s disease, not having the brain mouth filter, common sense, or good social skills to know when to say something and when to listen. One of the reasons I love old people is explicitly derived from this truthfulness and lack of filter.
When my mother-in-law fell and had to be placed in a nursing home, long-term care facility, I made some great friends in her facility. Not a single filter anywhere to be found. One older lady, her name regrettably escapes me, had family who would come and tell her the filthiest jokes on the weekend. During the week, I would visit my mother-in-law and slip her a couple of clean jokes, dad jokes, and just plain funny jokes. One day I told her a joke about passing gas in church after a bean supper the night before. She laughed so hard; I thought I had injured her. I came back the next day and learned she had told the entire staff this joke, and she told me she had laughed so hard so peed herself.
I apologized to the nursing staff and armed them with a few choice dad jokes. She did not want an apology, but she told me a story from her youth where the night before her church had hosted a community-wide bean supper, chili cookoff, raffle/silent auction, and how the next day’s sermon was cut short because the pastor could not stand the air in his church, which is when I began laughing hard enough to make me wonder if I was going to pee myself! Worse, this was the day after serving baked beans for supper, and she and I listened to the chorus of frogs from the patients and kept falling out of our chairs laughing.
Betty Eadie eloquently provides a caution for our words, “If we understood the power of our thoughts, we would guard them more closely. If we understood the awesome power of our words, we would prefer silence to almost anything negative. In our thoughts and words, we create our own weaknesses and our own strengths. Our limitations and joys begin in our hearts. We can always replace negative with positive.” The next lesson on why we speak is that our brains are too full of words and need an outlet. Yet, how much better would the world be if we filtered our thoughts, slowed our thinking, and kept our mouths shut?
“Those who are free of resentful thoughts surely find peace.” – Buddha
“The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.” – Marcus Aurelius
“If you want peace, stop fighting. If you want peace of mind, stop fighting with your thoughts.” – Peter McWilliams
Three people from different periods of human history, all messaging a truth, thoughts do become things, and often the things our thoughts become are not what we wanted or desired. More specifically, the thoughts became things because we expressed the thoughts that should have stayed silent in words. In learning to control the post-traumatic stress disorder I suffer, the words of Peter McWilliams became the answer I needed and the balm in Gilead I sought. I had to stop fighting my thoughts to be able to control the pernicious and repeated images, feelings, and constant reminiscing over a terrible incident from my service in the US Navy. Every day remains a challenge to acknowledge the thoughts and let them go. Every day it becomes easier to achieve. There is hope!
Why do we listen?
Of all the questions I have never been asked, I hope to learn the lesson of controlling my thoughts so I may hear better. I suffer from tinnitus, many times though the ability to listen does not reside in my ear where the tinnitus rings, but in my brain that is a ravaged wasteland of competing ideas, factions, and imaginations. When the voices in my head go silent, I hear the birds in the trees, I hear voices of people around me, and I experience hearing. The moment I begin speaking, I lose the ability to hear.
Ken Kesey is quoted as saying, “See with your ears and hear with your eyes.” What a remarkable idea. One of the most momentous times I can ever recall occurred while onboard my ship, deep dark of night. You know how dark night can get if you have ever been beyond the hundred-fathom curve. I was an engineer on the mid-watch (0000-0400) and was roaming around topside between rounds, something I should not have been doing, but I needed fresh air and wanted to see if the stars really were more brilliant at sea. On a night with no moon, deep dark, I saw the ship passing through the water with my ears. I heard the waves; I heard the wind whistling through the ship’s rigging; I saw with my ears the stumbling of smokers going to and from the smoke deck—an experience like no other. Why do we listen; to learn, to experience, and if we choose, to marvel!
In the 1990’s I had a screen saver called psychedelic. When music was played, it changed colors according to the beat, and you had user interfaces where you could pick specific interpretations to display on the screen in colors, lines, and contrasts. This was the first time I can remember visualizing sounds. I had previously turned the stereo speakers to maximum and watched sound interface with the water in a fish tank, but this screen saver was the first time I can remember seeing sound displayed by a computer. Since this screensaver, I have watched sound played in flames (SUPER COOL), watched water falling display shapes as heard through a computer, and synthesized (unique experience indeed). I have used several computer programs that took that old screensaver’s concept and improved the display and synthesization. Yet, I am still want to hear with my eyes and see if I can improve how I listen.
Something was pointed out to me, the word silent has precisely the same letters as listen, but in the arrangement of those letters, the ability of one is lost or found. I have learned that a silent mouth precedes a silent mind, and you need both to listen. Yet, it is a rare moment indeed when my brain is silent. My brain runs lyrics to songs, words I think I should have said, words I am preparing to speak, responses to questions, responses to other people’s opinions, facts, figures, fights, and the list goes on ad nauseum ad infinitum! A book by Stephen Covey mentioned, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand. Most people listen with the intent to reply.” Why do we listen; this is a valuable question to consider!
I have mentioned this previously and repeat myself only for emphasis; all the musical talent, knowledge, and skill I possess can be poured into a thimble and never moisten the bottom. I mention this because Linda Ronstadt said, “Ninety-Nine present of singing is listening and hearing, and so then one percent of it is singing.” A thought I had never previously considered. I love music and have an eclectic taste in music, but I hear not listen to music. Music has never been an escape from reality but has often been a balm to my world-weary soul. Music has been a tool, a weapon, and a shield, in the battles for knowledge, learning, and protecting myself from the words of others. In the US Army, Basic Training music was the key to getting me to relax and shoot the M-16A2 sufficiently to qualify and eventually graduate basic training. But, only now, when considering Lind Ronstadt’s quote, I realized I hear music, not listen to music.
Funny story, while my parents are hippies, my father is a professional musician but not a music teacher. As a kid, music in our house was how food made it to the table, how my father retreated from the world’s cares, and often a weapon against my mother. Yet, even coming from a home where music was a major part of daily life, I never learned to listen to music. Have you ever heard reveille played on a tuba, French horn, clarinet, trombone, guitar, recorder, or flute? If so, you know a little of what growing up in our house was like. When 0400 came, whatever instrument my father was playing at the time became the instrument upon which reveille was played.
A song covered by a multitude of musicians originates with Paul Simon, “The Sound of Silence.” The second link is to Disturbed’s cover of the Paul Simon song; I think this is the best version. What are the sounds of silence? Are they different for each person? Does the sound of silence change with the environment, the weather, or humanity’s influence? I once read a research report regarding the negative impact of listening to the sounds of New York City and how the city’s sound shortened the lives of those who constantly heard the city. As we consider the lesson on learning when to speak and to discern when to stay silent, may we consider how to improve listening, moving from hearing to listening, and find joy in seeing with our ears and hearing with our eyes.
© Copyright 2022 – M. Dave Salisbury
The author holds no claims for the art used herein, the pictures were obtained in the public domain, and the intellectual property belongs to those who created the images. Quoted materials remain the property of the original author.