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.