Wise words come from many places. Whether the pictured quote is Arabic, Chinese, or Mongolian in origin, Ted Chiang rephrased it this way:
Four things do not come back: the spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity.*
Since I’m not an archer or a time-traveler, I’ll take a crack at the first of these, the words we say or leave unsaid. Some prove necessary or useful when uttered. Others fall flat, pass unnoticed, or enlarge misunderstandings. Still more cause injury.
In contrast, thoughts upspoken might best remain inside oneself, the better to fade like a penciled note long exposed to the light.
Should at least a few of your unexpressed expressions be released from their internal exile? Could they build you into a person who must be taken into account instead of one whose desires remain unknown or dismissed?
What to do? I offer some less than perfect guidance. Anyone who says he always knows when to speak and when to keep silent is a wiser soul than I.
Become assertive enough to say what is essential.
If you endure persistent fear of harming another, you will converse little or turn expert in conversational trivialities alone. Many who dread causing injury doubt the worth of their opinions and their way with words, expecting rejection of the message or themselves.
Most of us have our own default settings, a baked-in tendency either to say things or keep silent on delicate subjects. Developing the capacity for direct speech shouldn’t be sidestepped in a world of voices ready to cut you off and talk over you. The courage to speak when others hesitate offers the opportunity to develop a commanding presence.
Unless you wish to invite anonymity, you must say to some segment of the world, “Here I am, deal with me.” By doing so, you claim a sense of yourself.
The ability to convey sensitive words face-to-face will, at least, give you a choice of whether and when to verbalize, rather than leaving you capable of silence alone.
Expect to fail.
No one engages in successful communication at every opportunity. Conversations falter more often than we’d like.
Within the past year, a friend told me I was the single person in his life who expressed difficult truths he needed to hear. When I asked his permission to comment on sensitive matters, he encouraged me. A complaint about himself from his work supervisor caused him to ask for my opinion.
The gentle fellow didn’t believe anyone in his group of family, friends, or parishioners would provide a frank answer to the workplace accusation involving his personal hygiene. He wanted to know whether I detected the problem. No one else could be trusted, he said.
“No,” was my response, “I notice nothing offensive.”
I do not doubt either his decency or the gratitude he offered on multiple occasions. Months later, however, I expressed an unrequested piece of advice, mild, I believed, concerning Coronavirus precautions. He became angry, not because of political differences. The relationship fractured though I did not trade barbs, no matter his earlier thanks.
I’m not suggesting on which side right or wrong fell in this formula for unhappiness. My point is these are complex matters, the results of which aren’t always predictable or desirable. Yet humans still must speak.
The danger of holding things in.
The weight of unexpressed emotion grows as our anger, sadness, and injury accumulate, piling up and piercing us like broken slabs of sidewalk. For those who continue to bear this distress, psychological collapse becomes a risk. Costly methods of coping take the pained individual in a destructive direction. These include substance abuse, endless self-distraction, and flight from much potential social contact.
In the worst cases, the silent suffering spills into depression or momentary but outsized rage. Small things tip the balance. Witnesses won’t know about the unmentioned insults leading to explosive dyscontrol.
Ironically, the one who quietly bore the painful injuries gets labeled as “the one with the problem.” When asked why they didn’t speak earlier, such patients told me they “couldn’t find the words” to convince the offending party of his error and injustice. Too many described them as too sensitive.
There are no guarantees with words. No alchemist or sorcerer provides aromatic potions of syllables capable of filling the air with just the right inflection, volume, rhythm, and order of nouns, verbs, and adjectives.
Nor can we buy the perfect facial expression with which to deliver those sounds, the ideal amount of eye contact, an untrembling voice, and steadfast self-assurance. Stores sell no commodities to ease our most important and intimate communications, not even mask and costume shops.
One of the finest spontaneous public speakers I ever knew never mastered the art of saying the difficult things I’m describing. Occasional private verbal explosions resulted. Then his words lost the measure and eloquence his formal audiences heard.
Though none of us are at our best when internal passions bubble over, the need to recognize and reduce inappropriate anger is essential.
Self-expression can be more important than achieving understanding.
Some things need disclosure despite unlikely comprehension by the listener. You must stand up for yourself. The most dramatic examples from my practice came when newly decisive and brave abuse survivors confronted their abusers. Their triumph was in overcoming their fear. Whatever the words, their essence was this:
You won’t admit what you did, but you will never do that to me again. I won’t let you.
Those of us who have forgiving friends or lovers are lucky. We receive acceptance and affection despite our less than stellar moments — the rash “spoken words” that “will not come back” among them. The survival of our relationships depends on our display of the consideration these kind hearts offer, recreating ourselves to become as forgiving as they are.
We live in a season of unusual sadness. Disease statistics tell us future opportunities to communicate with dear ones are not ensured. Endearments must not be postponed. The moment commends us to reach out to the estranged, including some of those we have injured or who have injured us.
Our intimacy and contentment depend on it.
The last two images are the work of Laura Hedien, with her generous permission: https://twitter.com/lhedien
The first is of the Narrows at Zion National Park in December 2020. The second 2020 photo displays a Sunset in New Mexico.
* From The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang. Thanks to Phil Zawa for his introduction to this dazzling short story.
Is it okay if I share these with my kids? These are such important concepts, and I know I could never express it as well as you. (Sorry to hear about your friend re: COVID).
You have a gift!
Thanks so much for sharing with me.
Sent from my iPad
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Thank you, Lori. Of course, please do send them to your children or other interested people. I don’t maintain much of a social media presence, don’t actively promote my writing, but am pleased if my posts reach others. There are “buttons” to make sharing easier at the bottom of each post, under the heading “share this.” Or, you can simply copy the post’s URL and send that.
This. Is so difficult. The reason I find life so difficult and unliveable. I need to learn how to speak and not cower in fear.
It is a gradual process, Lydia. I think I only began to master this ability in my 30s and the work never is done. While I’m usually thought of as a respectful and polite individual, my directness has not always been well-timed and wanted. No one gets this right every time. There are many books on how to become more assertive and, of course, therapy, too. Good luck.
“The weight of unexpressed emotion grows as our anger, sadness, and injury accumulate, piling up and piercing us like broken slabs of sidewalk.”
Yes, true, and I’d probably add “love” to the list of emotions in your spot on, poetical description above. It too can be just as difficult to disclose while at the same time just as emotionally painful to keep inside.
Cause and effect play a big role in weighing what I say or don’t say. In voicing unexpressed emotions, often there is a risk of letting words fly that may make you feel better for a few seconds, but in the long run can cause further emotional injury to either or both parties. As in your case with your friend….just a mild bit of advice and someone who apparently thought of you very highly, believed you to be the one and only person he could trust to tell him the truth, suddenly and unexpectedly turned away in anger, wanting nothing to do with your truth. Is the action worth the risk of the possibly unanticipated reaction?
Usually the question is, “Will saying this cause me more pain in the long run, will it cause the other person pain in their life, is it really worth the risk of putting the words out there?” As you point out at the start of your essay, “the spoken word cannot come back”.
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To answer the question you raise, Brewdun, yes, “the anger is worth the risk of putting words out there.” But I would also qualify this by saying “sometimes.”
One of the most painful human experiences is not being known for who you are. Put differently, I might describe this as not being seen, or being invisible, discounted, or anonymous.
No one should speak at every opportunity, but, as a therapist, those who are least happy are the people who hold to either one path or the other as a default tendency: to speak or not to speak.
Not all situations are identical. Therefore, not all remedies should be the same. Just as one would flee a physician who never prescribed antibiotics no matter the patient’s disease, one would avoid an MD who recommended them for every condition.
Thank you for your comment, Brewdun. Be well.
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I really enjoy reading your articles. Very enlightening. I’m glad you continued the blog. Wishing you a happy new year!
Thank you, Twinkledrops! Lovely and clever pseudonym, by the way! Best wishes to you for the holidays, as well.
Thank you, Dr. Stein, for this insightful post. For me, each point raised affirms my own lived experience. Whether we choose to speak out or to remain silent, there is some form of backlash. During my seven years in the convent, I endured a lot of emotional abuse in silence. I was oblivious to the anger building up within me until the day it erupted with such a force that it shook me to my core. I share that story in a fictionalized version of my final year in the convent, The Twisted Circle, to be published in 2021. I prepare myself for the backlash, not so much from my former religious community since only two of those involved are still alive, but from devout Christians.
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If you have an advanced sign-up list for “The Twisted Circle,” please put me on it, Rosaliene! I heard many stories from my patients of some of the condemning judgments they received from those who claimed to be “godly.” Religious belief can be a great boon as well as a self-justifying weapon. I’m sorry to hear you had to endure this and will be interested to find out more when the book goes on sale.
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I appreciate your support, Dr. Stein 🙂
It will be my pleasure, I am sure.
Like Rosaliene, while on the job I rarely offered a contrary position and would stay silent and not participate in discussions with staff that were uncomfortable. Sometimes though, I have blown my top when I could no longer tolerate being exposed to the corruption that is a huge part of the state system. In my private life, I speak a bit more than I did in the past, but being fearful of the ramifications of not agreeing with other’s opinions holds me back. I have difficulty with conflict.
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As Rosaliene noted, Nancy, there are costs on both sides: speaking and remaining silent. I suspect in smaller communities — the way we humans lived for the vast majority of our existence — there was a “spot” for everyone. Your name was known without much effort. Fewer voices competed for air space and recognition. Now, if one wishes attention, a raised hand might not be enough. It is a widely experienced challenge. I know, however, that you’ve been working hard on such things. I expect your hard work will continue to benefit you. Take care.
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“Anyone who says he always knows when to speak and when to keep silent is a wiser soul than I.” I am dealing with an aging parent…. I will try to keep this in the forefront of my mind. Thank you.
Very sorry to hear this, Laura. A challenge where the rewards are mostly internal. Best of luck.
You have such a great way with words. I enjoyed the images in this post too. “Become assertive enough to say what is essential.” This is something I’m still working on, but have already come far. Thanks for this article. 🙂
You are welcome, Rayne. And, as someone who has observed you change from a distance, you “have already come far!” Keep at it!