Words can be twisted into any shape. Promises can be made to lull the heart and seduce the soul. In the final analysis, words mean nothing. They are labels we give things in an effort to wrap our puny little brains around their underlying natures, when ninety-nine percent of the time the totality of the reality is an entirely different beast. The wisest man is the silent one. Examine his actions. Judge him by them.
— Karen Marie Moning
I love spider webs. Growing up in semi-rural Kentucky and later in suburban Indiana, I always enjoyed the time of year where I could count on the spiders of the region being out and about, building these amazing works of art that turned out to be so very functional. I loved their intricacy and their ingenuity. I loved knowing how strong a spider’s silk actually was, and that it was self-made. I especially love the sight of a web with only a faint glisten of dew on it, first thing in the morning, right as the sun hits it at a particular angle. It amazed me how close you had to get to actually see it, how, from a distance, it was invisible yet, up close, it was stunning and awe-inspiring. Far away: can’t be seen. Up close: can’t be fathomed.
Your silence will not protect you
— Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches
Having just finished the first of my three units of CPE residency, I found out something interesting: I’m actually pretty good at being quiet. I told one of my colleagues, a staff chaplain with whom I have a surprising amount in common, “I tend to talk a lot. I don’t always tend to say a lot.” As I wrote my final self-evaluation and as I write my weekly reflections, I’ve discovered my soul’s desire to, well, for lack of a better way of saying it, shut up. When I’m with patients, I’m learning to really listen. When I’m with friends, I’m finding out what it means to just be.
Early this unit, we realized how much my tendency to talk is a cloaking device, a smoke screen of sorts. It’s a tool I use to be looked at while keeping myself hidden, invulnerable, safe. If I keep talking, maybe [they] won’t really see me. Growing up, I spent a lot of time alone in my bedroom. Reading. Listening to music. Watching TV and movies. And whether or not it was actually the case, I often felt left to my own devices. Realistically, my parents, my mother, always knew where I was. But for whatever reason, I didn’t realize this. In my mind, I became invisible. My silence, my solitude, became my prison, the mechanism of my isolation. And so I learned how to yell, how to act out, because the last thing I wanted to be was invisible. I may not have wanted to be seen, but I sure as hell wanted people to at least know I was there, to know I existed.
How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.
— Virginia Woolf, The Waves
This weekend, Frankie was in town for Thanksgiving. It would seem that the interpersonal and intrapersonal work I’ve been doing in CPE has started to drastically change how I engage him, perhaps more than anyone else. Truth be told, in a partnership, one hopes that one can be silent and feel at home. For me, for as long as we’ve been together, I’ve struggled with this. However, as we sat on the couch this weekend, each of us with our respective books in hand, with only the sound of the relaxation fountain in the background, I started to settle, to drop into myself and feel at home, comfortable, welcomed. We didn’t talk much, but in our silence I felt much was said, much that my spirit needed to hear.
And so, I’m learning this: just because I’m silent, just because I give my voice a rest, does not mean that I become invisible. In fact, perhaps in my silence, I might actually let myself be seen, not merely from a distance but up close, where one can see my intricacies and beauty, my simplicity and complexity interwoven. Perhaps in my silence, I can let myself be called not great, not excellent, but simply “good” and hear it as a blessing, as an affirmation. Maybe in my silence, I can give someone else the space to share what they’re feeling and receive it as a gift, something special.
And just maybe, my silence will make room for God to speak and be heard. Maybe, just maybe…
photo credit: Martin LaBar via Flickr, cc
MICHAEL OVERMAN is a graduate of Garrett-Evangelical in Evanston, IL. As a self-admitted “old soul”, Michael is more than comfortable asking the tough questions and not having immediate answers. Michael is passionate about all things interfaith, challenging the religious status quo — and baking whenever possible. Michael currently lives in Cleveland after twelve years in Uptown, Chicago, completing his residency in hospital chaplaincy. In his spare time, he loves chocolate, wine, and scifi.