If We All Kept Silent: If We Learned To Listen As Much As We Talk

“God is silent. Now if only man would shut up.”

–Woody Allen

The first thing people notice about me is usually my mouth. It’s not particularly large or small, not intrusive under the slopes of my cheekbones. It’s nicely shaped enough, a puckered and bowed shaped in the crevices below my nose, two slivers of grapefruit pink. They don’t notice my mouth because I bite my lower lip when I’m pensive, or because my teeth flash when I laugh. They notice my mouth because it’s suspended in a constant state of motion, of never-ending chatter.

I love to talk.

I’ve been getting in trouble for it since I was a kid. Sitting still was never a problem, and I loved academia from an embarrassingly young age. The problem that arose during all my parent-teacher conferences was that I never shut up.

It followed me through high school, where sometimes I had to literally sit on my hands to keep them from shooting into the air during English class. I was banned from talking about politics at the dinner table, and I was shot dirty looks when I opened my mouth for a debate in religion.

So naturally, when I went to college, I rejoiced. Here, people wanted me to talk! They encouraged my dissent. They reveled in my opinions. I joined Word of Mouth (WoM),  where my entire public speaking group had to listen to me speak about whatever I wanted for three glorious minutes a week. It was nirvana. I had a whole column, a whole bi-weekly forum, to rant in. My English major was basically an outlet to furiously tap out long winding rants on my MacBook. I was completely enamored with speaking, with the fact that there were people listening to me, encouraging me to shout every last inconsequential thought to the top of the Gasson tower, my words ringing louder then the bells.

But being such a talker my entire life has left me feeble in the art of listening. Listening is like a muscle that I never exercised. I was so busy in my constant chatting cardio that I skipped the proverbial leg day. I’m shaky at it, spending too much time thinking about my response, about what I should say next, that I forget to fully absorb the ideas that are being proposed to me.

Throughout this year, the importance of silence has become more and more apparent to me. People have stopped listening. Their eyes glaze over when I speak. They think of only what they will say next, how funny or biting their responses will be, and I talk. I am guilty of it. There are students all over campus voicing their brilliant vivid ideas, and I am not listening. Sure, I’m hearing them, reading their articles, noting their social media campaigns, but I am not listening. I am so occupied with sharing my ideas, my opinions, my own self-perceived brilliance, that I forget that I am rather insignificant. If I am not listening, if I am blathering on about myself, what if everyone else is as well? What if no one is listening to me either?

My feeling of insignificance has grown. All at once I am filled with the realization that my words are not always magnificent. The more I listen, the more I realize that conversations have become exchanges of soliloquies. It’s eerie, isn’t it, that we’ve become a society so obsessed with auditory clutter, blasting from our headphones, our cell phones, our mouths. It’s easy to hide when we’re talking constantly. It’s easy to ignore what others are saying. If we stop to listen, we hear things that make us uncomfortable, anxious. Things like “I am struggling too,” “I feel lost as well.” When we stop, when we listen to others it does not only shed lights on the uncomfortable problems our peers face. It reminds us that we’re dealing with those problems as well. Word vomit is a suit of armor, protecting us from realities we’d rather not face.

But our words should not be chain mail, they should be delicate and poignant and sparing. Most importantly, they should be punctuated by our silences, which act with a sort of gentle eloquence our words can never quite master. When we listen, we can’t ignore others. In silence, we’re faced with the blaring realities we spend so much time constructing barriers around. The silence is deafening, isn’t it?

 

 

Featured Image by Breck Wills / Heights Graphics