“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
Yes, most of us know that phrase – we learned it as children. And most of us promptly stopped abiding by it as soon as we became grown adults who decided to pass that phrase on to our children.
Who knows why? At some point we start feeling as though the world really can’t function without our opinion on it (and social media reassures us of this over and over again). Sometimes our emotions well up to the degree that we can’t keep our mouths closed. Sometimes we have the (mistaken) impression that we are the only arbiter of truth or decency in a given situation and that it is our responsibility – our duty! – to say What Needs To Be Said. We tell ourselves we are truth-tellers. We tell ourselves we are just “tellin’ it like it is.” We say, “God wants honesty, doesn’t He?”
For a long time, I was exactly that sort of person. I had no patience for people who kept quiet about–well, anything. To me the answer was always, always, to share your feelings and your opinion, regardless of the situation. To do otherwise seemed to me a passive act, and occasionally a cowardly one. I wanted to be exactly like my paternal grandmother: a woman famous in her small community for telling everyone exactly what she thought about everything and everyone without flinching.
And it’s true that there are, indeed, times to speak. When piping up is our duty. Ecclesiastes 3:7, in fact, tells us this directly. There are times when our voices are required to right a wrong, to solve a conflict, to speak truth. The problem is that some of us assume “a time to speak” is all the time, every single day.
But we often forget the other half of the verse: there’s a time to be silent, too.
I first started engaging in what I’ve come to call “solicitous silence” on my blog when it came to book reviews. Because, man, sometimes I read books that are just….bad. Laughably bad. I-wasted-my-money-and-didn’t-finish-the-book-bad. More than once I was tempted to write a blazing critique of said books on here for the mere satisfaction of tearing them apart. “This book is so bad,” I would think as I sat down at the keyboard. “I want to tell the world how bad it is.”
But I didn’t. And I didn’t because, for starters, the offending book wasn’t hurting anything or anyone. It wasn’t Biblically incorrect or full of dangerous misinformation; it was just…not great. Not what I wished it would be or wanted it to be. Why write about that? Why add vitriol or mockery or criticism where there needed to be none? I know that some people enjoyed the book, because it was decently popular; I had no doubt the author had tried their best. In that case, why not leave well enough alone? I’m a writer; I know how much criticism (even well-intentioned) can sting. Instead of devoting space to tearing something down, I decided it would be better to devote space to something I loved and found edifying, instead. And so I did, and I do to this day.
The truth is that there’s so much we could go without saying. The scandalous piece of gossip masked as a prayer request. The unnecessary criticism. The mean-spirited statements. The opinions about nothing important that have no real significance. It’s not instinctive to many of us, but a gentle silence – a silence that uplifts and supports, that exhibits restraint, that presses pause on the narcissism and egocentrism that tells us everyone needs to hear what we think about everything – is a remarkable and rare thing.
It also makes your words matter more when you use them. My mother is, by nature, one of those “quiet people.” Unlike my grandmother, who went around with verbal barrels locked and loaded, my mother tends to measure her words and her opinions carefully. The result of this is that when she does have something to say, or a criticism to make, or an assertion, people listen a whole lot more. They know that if it’s coming from her, it matters. It’s been carefully thought-out. And she’s saying it for a reason.
So I encourage you to examine your life, as I’ve been examining mine lately, for what times you consider a “time to speak.” If that’s mostly always, then it might be worth taking a look at solicitous silence, and simply holding back every now and again. You might be surprised by the result.