I have been thinking about this phrase: keeping my word. Not so much as an expression that means the adherence to a promise, but in the sense of intentionally holding and conserving one’s speech, as a gesture of respect, service and sacrifice.
As part of the practice of my spiritual tradition, I attended a silent retreat last week. What I thought about in some of my contemplative time there was the historically uncomfortable relationship I have had with silence.
As the youngest of six very smart and loquacious children, silence has always been a painful reminder of my inability to find my voice in my family, of not being heard or solicited for my opinion. My brothers and sisters talked a lot and still do, and it is hard to get a word in edgewise, even in a one-on-one conversation. Recently, a cousin of mine joked after having spent the weekend with two of my siblings:
“Wow, growing up in the Burns family must have been like sitting through one filibuster after another.”
“Yes,” I replied. “And I was the junior senator from Idaho.”
True, I am an introvert by nature, and reticence actually feels more comfortable for me. Given my druthers, I would rather be quiet. I need quiet, or my inner state becomes jangled and overcrowded. My slow, methodic style of processing becomes glutted and clogged under the constant requirement to be externally engaged.
As a child, the teeming pipeline—through which animated conversation, carefully crafted arguments, and witty repartee constantly poured—made me feel desperate, pressured not just to speak, but to speak humorously and well. I felt like Lucille Ball in the popular I Love Lucy skit, working on a steadily sped up assembly line of chocolates, wrapping few and stuffing my mouth and pockets with most, in order to keep up with the pace.
Even now, in a world of so many talking heads: on social media, in professional or spiritual arenas and even casual gatherings, the pressure to be sagelike and lavish in one’s daily verbal contributions is ever-mounting. And, it is a social obligation that is not making us cleverer, or our conversation brighter; it is, for the most part, making our speech diluted and superfluous, even foolish.
Until recently, I have rarely been silent by choice or preference. And I have noticed how my silence has sometimes been considered suspect by the group in which I am engaging. I have learned that the absence of verbal contribution from the quiet one in the group can be louder than what anyone else is saying.
The silent one is usually not there by her choice, but by her history, and I am beginning to think, she is also there by design. Because the silent one is contributing a very necessary component to the conversation, by being its witness and the loom on which the connective threads can gather.
We speak to connect, to be seen and heard, to share our selves, our thoughts and feelings, our stories and our wisdom. Talk is a fluidic meandering that requires a constant and a stabilizer, a ground wire and a receiver. If one’s mind is too consumed with what she is about to say next, she can’t deeply listen to what is being said now.
Even though I may have vocalized little as a child, I was still telling the story of who I was to become. I was keeping my word to be the one who does the gathering and the weaving. The one who is the scribe and the archivist.
Though honestly not a pleasant experience for me growing up, I am grateful now for the silence and suppression of speech, in which I spent most of my youth. It has better honed me for my calling as a shaman and my vocation as a writer. To be the messenger—an essential role in each of these paths—I must know how to listen well, to hear what is being said underneath and between the words, in the nuanced movements of face and body, the mysterious, invisible language of energy, the weight and character of atmosphere—and, in the silence.
I have recently lost this longstanding frustration with my own silence. I have come to love the gentle distillation of thought and “kept” words that trickle through its corridors. I love the safe, buffering envelope it provides. The purity of privacy and intimacy—even amidst the din of raised voices.
I feel my life has been a long search for a voice—my true voice. Not one that is a mimicry of siblings or peers. Not one that is polished and lacquered with crowd-pleasing colloquialism. Not one that is heavily laden with redaction. But the true song of my soul.
And I smile ironically that I did not find that song in the sparkling current of banter in which I always searched for it and longed to hear it flow. Instead, I found it quietly humming in the last place I thought to look—the still point of silence within.