“Years ago, someone asked me what I would say to my younger self if I could. Without hesitating I answered: ‘That’s easy. I’d have said, ‘Be quiet.’ Not forever. But until I could stand back and look at things through a wider lens.”
This comment is from Patti Davis, daughter of the late President Ronald Reagan, in an op-ed for the New York Times reflecting on the decision of Britain’s Prince Harry to publish his memoir. Davis had done the same years earlier. Her tome addressed her dysfunctional relationship with her mother, Nancy, and her father.
Davis used the book to explain herself and, by doing so, to get more understanding from those around her. A worthy ambition, undoubtedly, but perhaps too revelatory at the time. Davis writes, “Not every truth has to be told to the entire world, even about famous families.” She adds, “But not everything needs to be shared, a truth that silence can teach.”
Nature of Truth
Reflection leads to introspection and, in turn, a thought about the nature of truth. “There isn’t just one truth, our truth — the other people who inhabit our story have their truths as well,” says Davis.
Our self-awareness evolves over time; we see our shortcomings. For example, what adult does not regret saying something to their parents in the heat of the moment? Yet, years later, with the benefit of hindsight, we recognize not that we were untruthful or hurtful but that we were ignorant of another person’s perspective.
Value and virtue
There is grace in silence. “When I am liberated by silence, when I am no longer involved in the measurement of life, but in the living of it, I can discover a form of prayer in which there is effectively no distraction. My whole life becomes a prayer. My whole silence is full of prayer. The world of silence in which I am immersed contributes to my prayer.” Those are the words of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.
Our self-righteous perceptions of truth can get the better of us if we are not careful. Harry Truman used to write angry letters, then place them into a drawer and never send them. Abraham Lincoln did the same. One executive I know advises others irritated with a colleague or a situation to vent their feelings in a draft email. Then, set the draft aside to revise later when passions cool or delete it entirely.
In our world of “gotcha comments” – that permeate our social discourse – how refreshing it is to stand back and disengage. Some call this digital detoxification. Whatever you call it, silence, like patience, gives us a measure of self-discipline. We cannot control events, only how we react to them.
One caveat. There should not be silence about the abuse. So often, those who reveal it unburden themselves from the unjustified shame they have been harboring. Silence must not be used as a tool of suppression; it must be offered willingly to see ourselves with greater clarity.
So yes, silence can work for us if we open ourselves to the experience. “Silence gives you room, it gives you distance,” writes Ms. Davis, “and it lets you look at your experiences more completely, without the temptation to even the score.” That is good advice for all.
First posted on Forbes.com on 1.08.2023