Friday, February 10, 2006

Talk Is Cheap

Published 1-30-06

Words fail us. They’ve never been adequate to express meaning completely, no matter what the language. The best we can hope for is that words will convey a facsimile of what’s inside. Each week I write eight hundred words here, but I’m seldom satisfied with what emerges. It usually falls short of what I mean.

Even when we strive mightily to find the right words, they’re not enough. When I ask a question of a class sometimes and a student raises a hand, he can’t find the words to answer after I’ve called on him. The poor kid will be speechless. I sense he understands but can’t express himself. I’ll encourage him and he’ll make a few attempts, but then cut himself off and say, “Never mind,” in exasperation. I ponder that. It’s a command to ignore him forever. Does he want me never to mind him when he has something to express? I doubt it but that is the literal interpretation. What he really wants is for me to divert attention away from him, so I do.

People who say the least seem most worth listening to. Conversely, those who talk endlessly say little worth hearing. Reading recently about early Christian hermits who lived in the Egyptian desert and practiced silence, I ran across a 1600-year-old quote from Diadochus of Photiki: “When the door of the steam bath is continually left open,” he said, “the heat inside rapidly escapes through it; likewise the soul, in its desire to say many things, dissipates its remembrance of God through the door of speech, even though everything it says may be good.” Many times I feel dissipated after writing a column or striving to express something verbally and failing.

We can’t pray openly in public schools. At my school, we have a moment of silence beginning each day after the Pledge of Allegiance and I pray silently then. All day long, however, I hear students say, “Oh my God.” There are variations on this too, such as: “I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” and “I was like, so ‘Oh my God.’” It’s perhaps the most ubiquitous phrase uttered in middle school. It’s not, however, considered a prayer, even though it is, literally. It’s not considered a prayer because students don’t have an attitude of prayer when they say it. They’re not kneeling; they’re not fervent or solemn. They’re trying to express how strongly emotional they felt in a certain situation. I wonder, however, if they are actually praying, but at an unconscious level. If they’re attempting to express how deeply emotional they felt a given time by saying, “I was like, ‘Oh my God!” and they have some unconscious awareness of God, what could be stronger than to invoke His name in astonishment?

It’s paradoxical that we can allow public school students to utter words of prayer so long as we know they don’t really mean them as such, but moments of silence in which there is no visible prayer but perhaps some surreptitious worship, make atheists in the ACLU feel like suing. After all the school shootings in the nineties, schools have become hypersensitive about other things students say. Often, we’ll hear one say to another, “I’ll kill you.” Usually it’s when they’re teasing and smiling good-naturedly, but school officials are encouraged to pick up on words like that and consider them danger signals, even when we know they’re not, really.

Then we have the aptly-named “small talk.” It never came easily to me. I find talking without really saying anything quite difficult and my words often stumble when I attempt it. If someone addresses me saying, “How are you?” I’ll take a second or two, consider how I am, and try to find the right word or words to answer honestly. Some are put off by the momentary pause. They don’t want their question to be taken seriously. For them, asking “How are you?” is just a way to say hello and they don’t really want an answer. Or, if they do expect a response, they want one that is as ineffectual as their question and nothing more. My feeling is: if you don’t want to know, don’t ask.

Being silently present can be more meaningful than speaking. Much is communicated wordlessly. We can learn more sometimes by observing someone’s behavior than listening to what he says, but many people are uncomfortable with silence in the presence of others. They’re compelled to talk even when they have nothing much to say. They only feel a semblance of control if they’re talking. Others, however, find silence relaxing and feel completely comfortable with it. As Mark Twain said: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”


Anonymous said...

Love this column. I often think that the ubiquitous cell phones, balckberries, computers, etc connect people to a world and each other with little real communication going on. As a 50 something, I often wonder how important it is to stay "so connected." THe only time I really think a cell phone is necessary is if I need milk and my husband happens to be on his way home. But, I have lived without milk for dinner and my life is not ruined. I learn to plan better the next time. Read Thomas Merton's treatise on "words" and "The Word"

Tom McLaughlin said...

Thanks for the tip. I couldn't find it online, but my mother has a lot of Thomas Merton stuff. Maybe she'll have "Spring of Contemplation" (1968) which is, evidently, where the essay you refer to would be.

Anonymous said...

at a spiritual conference I recently attended,a nun advised that when words are hard to come by, our presence can be enough. she she was speaking to mostly healthcare workers who are often present in traumatic or greivous situations. she said "be aware of the quality of your presence."