Faith Gong: An Election Day reflection in praise of tongue-biting

I am acutely aware that this column will be published the day before Election Day. There are intense emotions swirling around November 3, 2020: an election that falls during a year of pandemic, wildfires, protests over systemic racism, and a country bitterly divided along partisan lines. Reflecting on the United States in 1967, Joan Didion wrote, “The center was not holding.” Reflecting on the United States in 2020, I ask, “Is there a center anymore, and can anybody find it?!?”

After the 2016 election, I wrote my opinion about the state of the nation. At the time, I felt an obligation — as someone who works with words — to make a statement, to add my response. If you’ve consumed any news or been on social media lately, it’s clear that now almost everybody feels this obligation.

But I no longer do, so today I am writing about the often-underrated value of silence. 

By silence, I mean: no words, either spoken or written.

Wordlessness might seem like an odd thing for me to embrace. I am a writer. I live in a house that is full of noise and lively discussion all the time. We are a family that reads, and reads out loud, then reads some more, because individuals and cultures are formed by story. I believe wholeheartedly in the value of teaching my children written and spoken expression. If you give me money, I will buy books (or, occasionally, bookshelves). I inhale and exhale words. 

But there can be too much of a good thing: too much chocolate, too much exercise, too much vacation. And at this point in time, there are too many words.

Let me be clear: There are moments when it is essential that we speak up. Throughout history, words used well have been essential weapons against injustice, inhumanity, racism, sexism, and all manner of wrongs and abuses. I am in favor of using words this way.

What I see happening recently, however, is a compulsion to comment on every issue du jour. We flood the internet and the air with our kneejerk opinions, and then we re-post the opinions of others. We have lost a sense of discretion, and we have sacrificed the art of constructive dialogue for a cacophony of “likes” and “dislikes.” When we gorge on chocolate, the idea of more chocolate becomes unappetizing; when we are sloppy with words and let them gush unchecked from our lips and keyboards, words start to lose their beauty, meaning, and power. 

Nowhere is this truer than within my own home. With five children who spend the bulk of each day in each other’s company, words fly fast and furious. In an effort to encourage our children to choose their words carefully, we ask them to consider the following questions before they speak: Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it kind?

We adults might do well to ask ourselves these same questions, particularly before writing or speaking about political issues.

1. Is it true?  Words do not equal wisdom.

Simply because we can write an opinion — or share another’s opinion — does not mean that we should.  Some things to ponder: Do we have expertise in this area? If not, have we done enough background research to enable us to craft a well-informed argument? If we are sharing another person’s opinion, have we considered the source (i.e. Are they an expert? Have they done enough background research?) And above all: Does this contribute valuable information on the topic?

Let’s take time to reflect upon these questions before we add to the growing pile of biased opinions of questionable accuracy. Sometimes the wisest choice is silence. We can take inspiration from Proverbs 17:28: Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.

2. Is it helpful?  Opinion is not action.

There is so much wrong in the world, and many of us desire to make the world a better place. How do we attempt to right what’s wrong? Do we invest our time and talent working or volunteering for organizations that address the issues we are passionate about? Do we get uncomfortable by crossing boundaries that divide us from different cultures, races, or socioeconomic groups? Do we take care of our neighbors and communities in tangible ways? Do we get involved in shaping policy? 

Or do we sit in comfortable safety before our computers and share our opinions on social media? Do we forward articles that support our opinions? Do we rant to (or at) friends and family? None of these things are bad in themselves, but I’d suggest that they are the easiest — perhaps the laziest — way to tackle issues. We are mistaken if we equate voicing an opinion with taking action.

The written and spoken word can reveal injustice and change the course of history. Well-researched articles and eloquent speeches have indeed improved the world — but rarely.

Here is a litmus test: Before launching into a diatribe over the dinner table, let’s ask ourselves whether our words are likely to shape history like those of Mandela, Gandhi, Churchill, Lincoln, or Martin Luther King, Jr. Before posting our opinions on Facebook, let’s weigh the ability of our insights to effect change in the style of Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell, Nellie Bly, Edward Murrow, or Woodward & Bernstein. Coming up short? Consider taking an action that, although less verbal, may be more helpful.

3. Is it kind? Relationships are more important than rhetoric. 

One of the most important skills I’ve learned over 18 years of marriage is to bite my tongue. This doesn’t mean that my husband and I never argue or tackle difficult issues — far from it! But I’ve found that when something is bothering me in my marriage or family, the best course is to not discuss it right away. When I speak too quickly, I tend to speak too emotionally. I am not kind; I am blinded to the feelings of others by my own feelings. This sabotages any chance for productive conversation or meaningful change, which can’t happen if relationships are frayed. What I have to say may be true, and its intent may be helpful, but if it’s not delivered with consideration for my audience, it will fall flat.

Nowadays, I try to impose a 24-hour rule on my tongue: I will bite it for a full day before bringing up an issue with my husband. Often, by the end of that day, the original issue turns out to have been a problem with me rather than my husband or external circumstances — I was tired, grumpy, selfish. And if the issue must still be addressed, my ability to frame it kindly has improved because I’ve had time to consider all sides. 

Arguably the biggest problem our country faces right now is our separation from each other. Our bitter divisions along political and ideological lines are exacerbated by technological developments and community disintegration that keep us isolated and discourage us from careful, meaningful communication across differences. 

On this Election Day, one thing is certain: Some people will be delighted with the outcome, and some will be crushingly disappointed. Will we allow this to divide us further by venting our emotions in unrestrained words? Or will we be able to pause and consider the common humanity we share with those who don’t share our beliefs and ideals? 

When Joan Didion wrote that “the center was not holding” in 1967, she was referencing a line from W. B. Yeats’s poem, “The Second Coming,” written in 1919: Things fall apart; the center cannot hold…

Things fall apart when people fall apart. Words may not often change the world on a large scale, but words can make or break relationships. We needn’t feel guilty if we aren’t issuing a public statement on every topic; if we cannot produce words that are true, helpful, and kind, then let’s choose silence. 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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