I’m the sort of person who’s often described as a good listener. Actually, many “listeners” don’t hear much of what you say; we just hate to talk. So we learn to make soulful eye contact, nod at appropriate moments, and let the rest of the world confess, vent, ramble, and pontificate. Eventually we silent types find a way to make our escape from the chatty ones and hit the delete key on the lava flow of words to which we were regrettably subjected.
Because I’m not given to gab, I sit mutely at most meetings, waiting them out. There really is a subset of humanity convinced that a good share of meetings could be efficiently substituted by a well-edited paragraph on paper—since the bulk of decisions are made elsewhere and whatever debate may ensue rarely leads to much. In fact, what passes as dialogue seldom advances a thesis or contributes to greater understanding. Most so-called discussion is just people celebrating the song of themselves, which can be quite dull for anyone but the speaker.
Having tipped my hand to you here, let me admit too that, when asked for my opinion directly, I give it. My old boss Lou used to warn newcomers to the table: “Don’t ask Alice what she thinks. Because she will tell you!” Lou and I have been good friends for decades. He appreciates that not everyone can take the biting brand of frankness in which I specialize.
This information is the backdrop for my own confession: My usual reticence has failed me utterly in the past few years. After a lifetime of clamping my mouth shut and keeping my own counsel, I’ve suddenly started to say what I think—without being asked. It surprises me more than anyone, and it’s deeply troubling. An older friend puts it down to turning 60: After that milestone, he says, you don’t give a rat’s departure about consequences.
But I used to care, and I want to care. Consequences do matter, especially if someone gets hurt. One reason that silent people become so quiet is they themselves are sensitive to the power in words and don’t prefer to go off half-cocked. Words can be scorching, sharp as knives, explosive as bombs. Folks who fill the air with unreflective sentences invariably say a lot of things they shouldn’t. Gossip, libel, broken confidences, and bald unkindness all spring from talk that is ill considered.
No one ever accused St. Paul of being the strong silent type. He is not a stranger to ill-considered words. Read the Letter to the Galatians at one sitting, and redline every sentence Paul would not have penned if he knew this rant would someday wind up in the Bible. By the time Paul wrote Ephesians—or someone did; there’s no consensus on its authorship—we sense a new respect for the authority of language.
This judicious use of words calls to mind the Native American custom of placing a talking stick at the center of an important gathering. The one who holds the stick gets to speak—and no one can interrupt. The author of Ephesians has clearly learned some lessons about what happens when we take the talking stick into our hands overconfidently. Or the microphone. Or the rank of our office. Or the goodwill of friends and forbearance of family. We may claim the talking stick, all right. But that doesn’t mean our words are deserving of being heard.
Wild talk can be dangerous. Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit, Ephesians warns. That’s a pretty serious caution, since sins against the Holy Spirit are the only things that are unforgiveable (according to Matt. 12:31). I like The Message Bible translation here: “Don’t grieve God. Don’t break his heart” (Eph. 4:30a). What is heartbreaking to God, apparently, are words employed not to create, heal, or instruct, as divine speech does, but to destroy. We’re advised by Ephesians to lose the bitter, furious, loud, and loose talk. In some circles, this would amount to taking a vow of silence.
Ephesians denounces “reviling”—that is, abusive speech. Think of how many blog sites would be shut down, tweets revoked, and retorts swallowed on the spot, if we all agreed to this. Our cultural mode at the moment revels in reviling. Every corner of the national debate reviles a person, a group, an idea, position, or goal. How many suggestions have I reviled already today, I wonder? Some retorts I didn’t say out loud, I’m sure. But some I did.
The spirit of maliciousness has to go, Ephesians insists. This epistle’s campaign against mean talk and snarky thoughts amounts to an exorcism of malice from our hearts. One of the main themes in this letter is the idea that Christians have been called out of “the world” and into a new kind of existence entirely. The Jewish community of the first century was big into distinguishing itself from others—Gentiles, by name—and identifying its uniqueness by behavioral cues: ritual washings, keeping the Sabbath, circumcision. Christianity emerged from this cultural mindset and likewise wanted to separate its assembly from the “new Gentiles”: nonbelievers in the gospel. What distinguishes the followers of Jesus, Ephesians declares, is the indwelling spirit of Christ. Malice has no truck with Jesus. So we must choose between these two incompatible masters.
If malice belongs to the dark side, what identifying attitudes mark the Jesus crowd? Ephesians is quick to supply a spirit to replace the malevolence we’re obliged to cast out: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (4:32). In other words, don’t break God’s heart. Reveal God’s heart instead. These are not inscrutable mysteries. They’re kindergarten rules. Be kind, put yourself in the other person’s place, say you’re sorry, and be quick to forgive someone who hurts you.
Looking back on a lifetime of not saying much, I’d be the last person to pretend it was virtue that kept my lips sealed. Nor do I think my more recently expressive self is a superior model or that more talk is what a divided social scene really needs. We do need to communicate, which by no means involves the multiplication of words—especially the sort generated by media all around us. The bitterness, shouting, and reviling has to end, and gentleness, sympathy, and reconciliation must be the governing spirit, particularly among believers. Truth cannot remain confused with “how I really feel.” The truth is, how I really feel is almost always beside the point, and it’s grossly self-serving to hurl across the table at anyone.
I don’t want to become the cranky old lady everyone avoids in social settings, the one who has to speak her mind no matter how much shrapnel it spews. I’ve avoided her myself. It’s a fantasy to imagine that wisdom issues from the mouths of anyone who simply managed not to die for a half-century or more. Talk remains cheap, and the louder the talk, the closer it is to worthless. Since I’ve officially ended my career run as a fake listener, maybe it’s time to evolve into a real one. That doesn’t give you license to bend my ear ad nauseam at the next gathering, however. I’m willing to listen, so long as you’re willing to be soft-spoken, kind-hearted—and brief.
This article also appears in the August 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 8, pages 47–49).
Image: The Supper at Emmaus, Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, 1622–23, The Metropolitan Museum of Art