There’s a moment in movies when you watch the main character stay stoically silent while taking abuse for something you, the omniscient viewer, know they didn’t do or don’t deserve. A parent takes the blame to protect a child. A friend who suffers verbal tirades rather than revealing the sacrifice she has made for her pal. A spouse silently suffers to be supportive then gets accused of indifference.
They are walled in, these characters, alone with their truths, trees falling in the forest with no one around to hear the crash…No one but the audience of course.
I feel like this all the time. Maybe that’s melodramatic, but I look around me and in the space where I should be I see only a vague outline. I am unknown and unknowable, silently assenting to the various roles that people around me assume for me. Not correcting them. Not pointing out how I agree with them, understand them, disagree. Never drawing attention to the wispy threads of personality that I still possess beneath this monochrome mask.
I wonder how, and when, this happened. When did I sit on the mute button and start blinking dumbly at the world around me? Sometimes I wish I had an audience, some sort of witness to the fact that after years of being a snarky, stubborn child I learned to demurely hold my tongue, but the snark is alive and well inside.
Then I remember that I frequently talk to myself when no one is around and I’m grateful there are no cameras.
Over the last few years I have made a very conscious effort to be a better listener. People have always just poured their life stories out to my mother. How does she do that? How does she draw them out? I watched her and realized that not only is she a good listener but she is also genuinely interested in people’s stories.
Fake it ‘til you make it, they say.
I started to practice. I listened. I made eye contact. Even when I felt my attention drifting off towards the horizon I didn’t let my gaze follow it. I answered the questions asked of me, but tried to turn the conversation back towards the other person as quickly as I could. It’s actually shockingly simple. Apparently, I’m not the only person on this planet who really enjoys talking about myself. The more I listened, the more I became genuinely intrigued. It worked!
Eager beaver listening skills in hand, I trotted off to Brazil for a year of field work for a PhD in cultural anthropology. Not only was I determined to be a good anthropologist, but I was a little shy with my Portuguese. I spent months and months on end just watching and listening and providing little smiles and short ascensions as necessary.
Now that I have an office job peppered with meetings (no match for Brazilian meetings, but loads of fun anyway) I continue to have ample opportunity to watch people talk and interact. Who cuts others off? Who takes control? Who asks questions that are really criticisms? I can’t seem to turn the anthropological note taking off, and the fact that business is conducted in my native language makes the nuances of office politics all the more accessible and absorbing.
I have forgotten how I fit into this. My “participant observation” skills are heavily weighted towards the latter. I can’t seem to peel my sticky fly legs off the wall to stand upright in the middle of the room. I’m not a complete wallflower; I think I first come off as a little weird and then all memory of me fades away.
The character in the movie, silently carrying the burden of their unexpressed soul, always seems at risk of becoming a lifeless automaton, devoid of spark, isolated by their diminished personality. I hope that’s not where I’m headed. I am so loudly myself in my head that it seems bizarre to me that I can so steadily stare expressionless at the rest of society.
The most comfortable silence I find is during yoga class. Someone is offering verbal cues (and that someone is me when I am teaching), but the most important forms of expression are corporeal or some kind of silent, energetic communiqués. The conversation is subtle, radiating out from limbs and hearts. Here it is OK that I have forgotten how to vocalize and can only observe, myself and others.
A tree falls in a forest, and there are no full sentences to explain or justify this action. But the tree is greeted with the busy hum of other plants and birds and bugs and squirrels, wordlessly skittering and shaking with life. Even without words, we have integrity, we have our purpose, we have our Selves.
I am slowly getting more comfortable with the idea that I can be misunderstood or overlooked by the society that buzzes all around me. I am OK being my muted self, with no outside appreciators of the dazzling colors beneath (yes, deep down and in the privacy of my own thoughts, I do think well of myself). I trust my own vision inward enough to be the only witness to it.