On the Blessed Silence of Holding One’s Tongue

August 17, 2011 at 3:12 pm 2 comments

I come from a family of readers, talkers, and opinion-sharers – a heritage which goes back at least two generations on my father’s side alone.  Growing up in a household of verbally expressive types, it’s been a life-long struggle for me to learn when to keep my thoughts to myself.  There may be earlier examples, but I vividly recall the third grade trauma of being sent to the principal’s office for being the only one in a gaggle of eight-year-olds dumb enough to blurt out an explanation for how the stall door in the girl’s bathroom got pushed in the wrong direction, to the fatal detriment of its hinge mechanism.

Not favored with innate control over such outbursts of honesty, I rationalize that the incessant proffering of informed sentiments is somehow a more exotic species of rhetoric than garden-variety, cliché-ridden blusterings about “kids today” or the chronically sorry state of politics.  The truth is that being reared in the midst of lively conversationalists may train a person to be uncomfortable with interpersonal silences.  In my case, there was also the need to compete with a vociferous older brother who made himself the center of everyone’s amused attentions with outrageous practical jokes and designed-for-shock-effect proclamations.

Whatever, I somehow ended up being That Person – the pedestrian who calls out a warning to speeders racing madly through residential areas; the viewer who scolds television “reporters” spewing out views instead of news; the disagreeable sort who argues out loud with every pharmaceutical commercial that suggests the answer to any ailment is to pop a pill, never mind the two-page list of dreadful side-effects; the pursed-lip priss, hissing and sputtering as the woman in front of me at Walgreens buys ice cream, potato chips, and energy drinks at inflated drugstore prices with her food stamp card so that she can free up her own cash to purchase multiple packs of cigarettes.

In short, the boor who simply must comment on every aspect of coarse society as it passes by, as in lamenting teenage Walmart shoppers who don’t have the sense not to wear profane tee-shirts at literal eye-level to the cart-sitting toddler they gave birth to at 15. (Wonder what that little one’s first words will be.)  It’s not as if enumerating media lies and social ills does anything in itself to resolve them, but when no one else is speaking up, my ego compels me to provide some kind of narrative.

There are advantages to being mouthy, of course, as when that trait combines with moral outrage to take on a customer service injustice like a dog tackles a chunk of rawhide.  I have a grateful niece who was pressured by a local fitness club rep to sign a contract she hadn’t the experience, at 18, to fully understand.  I took that fight, via telephone, all the way to a top executive in a plush New York office building.  She got her $388.00 back.

I also got my own $10,000.00 surgery covered by taking good notes, doing solid research, standing firm, and threatening to involve local government agencies when the insurer tried to shove me through the “preexisting conditions” loophole in my policy.

But hearing myself drone on day-to-day can be wearisome.  If it wears me out, what must its effect be on those around me?  I don’t want to become the tiresome great aunt whom everybody avoids at family gatherings, although that ship may have already left the harbor.

Like screaming “Idiot!” at every lame-brained driver one encounters, breaking the constant commenting habit remains a challenge, decades after a kindly principal lifted this tearful little blabbermouth onto her lap to sort out  the details of the Reverse-Swinging Stall Door Caper.

This brings me to a book which has sat in my collection for years – nurturing, osmosis-like, dreams of a writing career that got waylaid by eight-to-five job demands and family obligations.  What does Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande, possibly have to do with being a bit too talkative?  Let me explain; I’ll try to keep it brief.

Written in 1934, the book focuses on the writer’s mind and heart, with the goal of training those traits of personality which are essential to professionalism.  The “magic” behind the art of writing, in other words, has little to do with mechanics and technique, and it is, the reader is reassured, teachable.  To that end Ms. Brande offers exercises – psychological tests, if you will – that hone one’s focus and put  essential senses on alert.

There are treasures here for the writer and non-writer alike:  chapter five, Harnessing the Unconscious; chapter 11, Learning to See Again.  And somewhere buried in this text I remember a directive for the reader to set aside a day when he or she initiates no conversation at all, and offers no observations, but is allowed only to respond to others’ questions or greetings.  This is the point where I always get stuck.

July 20, 2011.  I write at the top of my daily journal page, “No Opinion Day,” and set out infused with enthusiasm to conquer this uphill climb.  Just to be honest, I will lay down a hash mark on that day’s date for every time I slip in my resolve.  On my morning walk, I note half-eaten fast food garbage in the street, and grumble something about mindless and wasteful consumers.  Mark number one.

Okay.  So I’ll redouble my efforts.  Back at home, reading the morning’s Yahoo! Headlines, I am audibly enraged by a finger-pointing politico who contradicts his own analysis of just a few months ago in order to slip out from under a poor policy decision.  Mark number two.

Listening to the radio, I hear an ad by a nursing home owner claiming that, as you look across the table at your spouse, you should acknowledge that one of you will end up needing long-term residential care some day.  “Puppy poop!” I screech.  “The statistic is ten per cent of Americans, not fifty per cent, you fear-mongering twit!”  That probably counts as marks number three and four.  Maybe even five.

At this point, I get discouraged and stop recording my flubs.  Why is this so difficult?  Should I try hanging around with positive people on the day of this experiment?  Sunny optimists who see only the good around them may not care to hang around with me, I realize, but surely there is some way to curb my voracious appetite for vocalizing the obvious.  If, as one web site put it, control of the tongue is a mark of spiritual maturity, then I am still in elementary school.

Maybe the answer lies in style, not substance.  My mother often said, “It’s not what you say but how you say it.”  Doris Day managed, in countless appealing roles, to express righteous indignation adorably – without guile, without bile.  The guiless part comes to me naturally, but there does seem to be a bit of bile behind my relentless reiterations.

I am not giving up on this.  I plan to try another “No Opinion Day” again very soon.  But just as my dog seems incapable of restraining her crazed response to the approach of marauding mail carriers who dare approach our domicile, I feel sometimes as if this blurting habit is eerily outside of my control.  I used behavior modification to quit smoking years ago; perhaps the answer lies in a small (or large) piece of duct tape on my upper lip, or closing myself in a closet at a pre-scheduled time each day to snort and snuffle and rant my head off, out of the hearing of other living creatures.

I did manage a twenty-five minute walk with my husband a few weeks ago, in which I did not initiate any conversation.  He was lost in his own thoughts.  (How often must my incessant babbling jerk him from those reveries?)  The hovering quiet caressed me like a gentle whirlpool of serenity, and I found myself calmed by the peaceful background hum of cricket chatter.  It was quite heavenly.

Too soon, we were back home, assaulted by the blare of television and the glare of recent headlines.  If there were only less material out there to respond to in this insane, upside-down, “where are we going and why are we in this handbasket” world in which we live.  Oops.  I suppose that’s another slash mark on the calendar of my life.  Time to haul out the Pillow Talk DVD, schedule another silence-shrouded stroll, and give thanks to God for creating the lowly cricket.

Entry filed under: Advice For Life. Tags: , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Craig  |  August 17, 2011 at 7:14 pm

    That was very good. This would be a great editorial in a newspaper.

    • 2. kirkhams  |  August 18, 2011 at 3:01 pm

      Bless you, and thanks for your loyal readership. I do hope to bundle the best of the essays into book form in the very near future, so I probably won’t be submitting them for publication elsewhere, but I appreciate the compliment.


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