I’m struggling to write this. When the words don’t pour out of my fingers, I do nonsensical things: change the font to Chalkboard, make the desktop brighter, click incessantly.
But I was thinking as I woke this morning from a dream in which I saw my father, that Ronan Keating had it right. You really do say it best ‘when you say nothing at all.’
The last few times I’ve dreamt of my father, he hasn’t been saying anything. In my subconscious, as in real life, he is an advocate of silence.
Now it may seem like a simple feat: keeping your gob shut. But as a parent of any teenager (or 2-year-old) can tell you, shutting up is harder than you think.
Try not responding when your 13-year-old yells, “I hate it when you try to control my life!” Or when your 5-year-old is poking you: “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”
Although you have to say a whole lot as a parent (imparting wisdom and all that), you also have to know when to not. My father was an expert at the classic “non-response.” Silence was his scream of disapproval.
“Daddy, what do you think of this green skirt?”
(Silence of disgust)
“Daddy he asked me to a soccer match. I think I’ll go…”
(Silence of “No you will not!”)
“Do I have to drink this red wine, Daddy? I want Smirnoff Ice.”
(Silence of disappointment at my unrefined taste)
However big or small the issue, sometimes the best way to come to an understanding was not to utter a word.
But silence came at a price.
As a parent, my father was often presumed to be too permissive, too detached, or too carefree. “How can he not say anything? He just lets his daughters do what they want.”
Little did they know that a lack of words on his part meant a lack of action on mine. As he very rarely expressed disapproval, to honor his trust I didn’t dare act on anything he’d be displeased with.
Of course every parent has their own method of discipline, but for my father, the less he said the more he showed, and the lesson was imparted without so much as a raise of the eyebrow.
Silence is a very real, and a very honest, conversation. It’s not so much the saying, but rather the never NEEDING to say, that counts.
As parents, as friends, as husbands and wives—we often feel this urge to share everything, to say everything, to impart every single detail lest leaving something out means we haven’t communicated effectively, or truthfully.
But I think it’s of some value to remember the gaps in the stories, the blank pages in the notebook, the pauses in conversations. There are some moments, sometimes very crucial ones, that require us to be quiet.
I am akin to my father in this inclination to silence over speech, and I have found that the road is difficult. If you speak sparingly, people generously gift you their presumptions.
But as my father demonstrated so well, you only get burned by other people’s judgments to the proportion that you value them over yourself.
As parents, we may be saying it best when we stop short of an insult, when we hold back words of condescension. Maybe when we allow silence to follow an argument, we are offering our children some respect, as well as the opportunity to understand. And before we say anything more, we might find they’ve heard it all.
I stop now, as I’m struggling to finish this. Unfortunately I can’t end without any words. For better or for worse, silence cannot be written down.
P.S. The above entry was written three weeks prior to publication. But it was just yesterday I discovered one of my father’s notebooks (until then hidden beneath a pile of books), to find he had written on the first page: “Silence often speaks when words are inadequate.”