Subtlety of Silence

Ben Franklin’s 13 Virtues: Week Two, Q1

Silence “Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

Younger and dumber, I was on the phone, sitting on a bench and looking at my feet. There happened to be some recently chewed gum on the hot, gator concrete. Still wet, the bubbly saliva glistened in the Florida sun. Ants picked up on the sweet smell. An army of them crawled all over the discarded treat. Wow. Nature is super interesting. I spit on the ants.

“Are you listening?!?” interrupted my shrill phone.

“Wait? What? Of course I’m listening.” My back straightened, head tilted, eyes looking to the back of my brain for an answer. “I think your phone cut out. What’d you say?”

“I JUST said that ‘I feel like you never listen to me!’ ” yelled my now ex-girlfriend.

Haha. Well, sometimes that stuff happens. But it’s true. I wasn’t listening. I was checked out. And it wasn’t isolated to her. There were times I barely listened to anyone. During conversations my brain silently contemplated what I was going to say next. I was more important. My wisdom will blow people away. A superior intellectual experience.

It sounds terrible because it is.

When I saw that this week was entitled “silence” it didn’t do much for me. As the week went on, the act of being silent was harder than imagined. After all, we talk. We talk a lot. We’re social animals. But in my effort to be heard I was not giving those I care most about my honest attention. I didn’t listen. To listen, I had to be silent. To be silent, I had to constantly remind myself to shut-up.

There were times I wanted to cut off my wife mid-sentence. Say something sarcastic. A quick quip. Move on to something else. “What’s for dinner?” I mentally had to remind myself to stop and listen. Repeatedly whispering “silence” in my head. If I forgot she would gesture her fingers in the “shut your mouth” motion. It’s an effective reminder.

At dinner one night I intently focused on a good friend. Active listening required effort. The effort yielded surprising results. There was a gush of emotion. Words waiting, burst out. He opened up: anxieties about life, the difficulty of saving for his wedding, the lack of joy at his job. Gone was the traditional “How ‘bout them Yankees?”

How did it take me so long to realize the importance of listening? A common courtesy to be quiet and attentive to those closest to us. Our friends our families, our loved ones. The impact of this week was far more subtle than the physical impact of Week One but maybe more important. I’m almost ashamed to write this because it forced me to be honest about myself. I have to apologize to my loved ones for the courtesy I did not give you. But today is a new day. I promise to be quiet and listen.