“What do I have to say?”
How I wish that more people asked this simple question before adding to the public discourse. Instead of wondering about their particular expertise, or wondering about how their experiences have shaped them, most people weigh in, almost automatically, on nearly any occasion. We have become a nation of opiners, flexing our incredible verbal muscles in a display that rivals any body-building competition.
And for what? What are the effect of our words? What spaces do they carve out in the public square? How do our voices land in the ears of those around us? How does what we say actually represent our thoughts and feelings, and how much is made to simply compete with what we hear—a kind of verbal pyrotechnics meant to outblast, if not outshine, the sound and fury of our neighbors?
It is enough to make one meek. Since everyone expresses opinions at a level of intensity that rivals Jonathan Edwards—dangling our audience over pits of damnation—a quiet measured voice is like a spring zephyr in February—lost in the midst of winter rain and sleet, unless one can open oneself for that fleeting moment that the season will change, and that the one breath of gentler warmth can ease its way into our winter layers. But who has enough patience to be that harbinger? To breathe softer words? To hint?
And who would listen?
I begin with no grand proclamation to shout. My students would laugh to hear me say that. I have shouted, exhorted, acted—overacted—and entertained in classes for years. Inevitably, I will announce “Dr. Brennan’s Rule for Life #7,362: Buy flowers,” and acknowledge that there are as many rules to the north and south of that number. However, my students are a captive audience—they have to at least pretend to listen to me. The same goes for my daughters, or even the members of the congregation I served for nearly a dozen years. Yet, I never take any listening for granted.
Maybe this is true of others as well, and maybe this is part of the reason that there is so much shouting in the square—as if volume could take the place of wisdom. Say something loud enough and someone will pay attention. Get enough people to pay attention, and some number will believe what you are saying. Get enough people to believe and rule the world—or some slice of it.
What if all you want to do is quietly share. I saw this… I heard this… I thought this… I felt this… What if you wanted to just add to the world and not bend it to your will? To inspire some stranger to go and see, or hear, or think, or feel? To suggest, perhaps to persuade, but not to cajole or chastise?
I do not know. I wonder if there is a wisdom or wisdoms that might be shared, if a thought precisely crafted and shared will find purchase. Is there a value in inspired rumination? My students read Walden and bristle at Thoreau’s adamantine vision. Who is he to insist on how we should live? Didn’t he die penniless? Where did he go to school? Why isn’t he as well organized as Emerson? I don’t think about my pants. The same holds true for Whitman’s kosmic voice, and for Dickinson’s route of evanescence. Writers who stake a claim turn readers away. If that selection seems too narrow, Ellison’s blindingly light filled room, Woolf’s roomier postulations, and Marquez’s endless Aurelianos also turn readers into pillars of salt.
But, declare I must, because silence is not a story, and words may find purchase, somewhere, somehow. Time to work.