Greatness: Silence

Daniel has often commented that the time he spent with my whole family growing up has had a big impact on his friendship with me, as he has had the opportunity to see the dynamics and factors that went into making me who I am.

One of those factors, from the time I was about six, was noisiness. Most of you know or have my met sisters, and most of you probably won’t think that what I’m about to say is a fair characterization, but remember it was the appraisal of a six year old boy, concerning a seven year old girl and a four year old girl. Or something like that.

Anyway, that age was probably the earliest point in my life when I really stepped back and said, “I can see people behaving this way, and I choose to behave that way.” Heather had a good friend who lived nearby (and I didn’t, and that probably plays into this to some extent), and when she and Cheryl would get together, they would just talk and talk and talk. Chatter, it’s called. It wasn’t the volume, so much as the quantity, and the perfect obviousness of the fact that it was all nonsense. I mean, second grade gossip, how valuable is it gonna be?

And then there was Shannon, and with her it was the volume. She was the little one, and the last one, and she had to speak up to be heard at all, and when she caught on to that, she sure went all out. I think there was something wrong with her hearing for a little while, too? I’m not sure on that one. Anyway, she made noise.

And, even at that age, I decided that I really didn’t like all the noise, all the ruckus. I spent a lot of time playing by myself, out in the trees and pasture below our house, so I got used to the quiet anyway, and I just decided that that was more valuable, to me. Well, no, that’s not true. Back then I wasn’t so generous. I decided that noisiness was awful and horrible altogether, and that being mostly quiet was ideal.

And, of course, when I got together with my other friends, all six year old boys, I’m sure we raised quite a racket. I don’t remember doing that, but I’m sure we did. Whatever. The point is, I decided that an aspect of my personality was going to be silence, and I incorporated that into who I was.

I was talking with Trish about this on Monday, driving home from Little Rock, in case you’re wondering why I bring it up here. It’s not really something I’ve thought about recently, but it occupied my mind quite a bit in high school. I’ll get to that, in a moment.

So, way back then, I had a handful of friends from church, but church was about half an hour away, and most of them lived on the other side of it, so it’s not as though we saw each other at all aside from church events (and occasionally inviting one or two friends over for the afternoon on Sunday). Other than that, as I said, it was mostly the playing by myself. So this philosophical choice I’d make about Silence was pretty much a foregone conclusion, anyway.

But when I was twelve, my family moved to Wichita, and I was enrolled in a school that had a Gifted Program (and, y’know, more than 200 people K-12 — probably well over 200 people just in the middle school). This meant a lot more people for me to have someone in common with, and for the first time I had a group of friends at school. Friends I interacted with on a pretty much daily basis.

And most of my interacting was just practicing silence. It seems almost imagined, when I think back on it now, because it’s so different from who I am today. I would sit in a group of people who, adjusted for age, pretty much exactly matches the group of people I hung out with in high school, and the group of people I hung out with in college and, though the number has shrunk, the group of people I hang out with now.

Talkative people. People who listen to the news and ponder life’s big questions, and talk out of their ass from time to time just to sound sophisticated. People who debate constantly, trying to find an answer, or score a point, or challenge someone in a way that will make them think something new (or just get a rise out of them). It is a constant babble, but somehow it strikes me as different from the chatter, the meaningless blab that I’d discarded when I was little. So I didn’t mind it so much.

However (and this is the disconnect), when I was a part of this group in middle school, I would sit for hours and listen to them talking, but I wouldn’t participate. Not much. I mostly just listened. I assume I was the same way with the youth group, but I can’t say for sure, and the only people who really could (aside from maybe my parents) have known me for too long since then to answer with any more clarity than I can, I think.

But I definitely remember the dynamic among my friends at school, and for a rather embarrassingly vain reason….

Okay, I’ll tell you. When I was in sixth grade, I wrote my first novel. It was called The Scorekeeper, and it was about…errr…an archangel who came down to Earth (well, not Earth, but to the world where my fantasy novels are set) to convince four prophesied heroes to fulfill their destinies and save a kingdom. However — here was the tricky bit — even though he had foreknowledge and immense power, he wasn’t supposed to interfere. The heroes were supposed to have the adventure, because it was a human situation and humans were supposed to resolve it. So he followed along, watching these people, occasionally having a hearfelt discussion with one or another of them, and without ever touching the world he subtly, gracefully led them along the path for which they were destined.

Err…okay, it was my first novel, and I was in sixth grade, so the grace and subtlety weren’t what they should’ve been, but that was the point of the character.

And I remember one day, shortly after finishing it, I intervened in a conflict among a couple of my friends, and resolved it to everyone’s satisfaction, and Haley Rumback (I had such a crush on her at the time) stopped me in the hall between classes and said, “You really are the Scorekeeper, aren’t you? You’ll save us all.”

Okay, this whole post has been worth it to me, just for the warm memory. I’d forgotten that bit, mostly, until I worked my way up to it.

Anyway, that wasn’t something I’d intended at all, in the conception of the story, and I’d never thought of myself in that way, but when she said that, I thought about it heavily (as I tend to do), and I recognized this aspect of my interaction with my friends. The thing I’m talking about in this post, I mean, where I would sit back and listen, barely participate at all, but really listen, and when I did speak up, I had something so worth saying, that they all paid attention. And, at least that once, I was able to really help.

Man, those were good days….

Then there came a time, early in my high school career, when I decided that I could be sociable. That it was a matter of behavior, not genetics, and all it took was getting up and participating in the conversation, rather than hiding from it. This is one of my mom’s proudest memories of me, because she saw me learning to face social challenges, but it’s also one of the things I most regret about my own development.

Because it worked. I was successful, to an extent. You all know that I’m still a pretty shy person, that I still am very uncomfortable meeting someone for the first time, and I’d much rather interact in a small group than a large one (or out in public), but even so…I’m way better than I was in middle school.

Mostly, though, it’s just a matter of participation. I jump into the mix. I make wry comments when the opportunity arises (well, I think they’re wry). I start conversations, rather than waiting to see what others will talk about.

(I’m not bragging here — I’m not particularly good at any of these things, it’s just that I do them at all.)

Anyway, I devoted most of a year (probably my Freshman year in high school) to learning to do these things. I really worked hard at being social, and my circle of friends grew. I got to know a lot more people, and more people thought I was fun to hang out with. I don’t remember anyone really coming to me for advice, though. I don’t remember solving a lot of problems. I do remember regret. By my Junior year at the latest, I was missing what I’d once had. I’d gotten to the point that I spoke up a lot more, but I said a lot less. That really bugged me, and I decided to go back to the way I’d been.

I’ve decided that at least once a year, ever since then. I’ve never succeeded, not even a little bit. I wish I could be the contemplative listener, the thoughtful observer, instead of the shining socialite I’ve become.

And what’s the point of all this? What’s the point of the post? More chatter, I guess. Something I should’ve kept to myself, but said out loud instead. I guess this is really more of a diary entry than an essay, but there you go. At least I wrote something today.

There are some lessons, though. You can choose to shape your own personality, within limits. You can choose to become something you admire, or avoid something you dislike. There’s a certain gravity to some characteristics, though, and those are particularly the shallower ones. There are some evils that, once invited in, are hard to chase back out. And sometimes they look beautiful as strangers, but once you’ve gotten to know them, you wish you didn’t have them at all.

So maybe it is a topical post after all. For Julie, at least, who has been discussing these things lately. Here’s my personal experience, with all of the issues you wrote about today. Maybe it’s worthwhile. Maybe it’s worthless vanity. Make of it what you will.