I Wasn’t Made to Be Silent

“Be silent, child,” they said. “The world does not care for your troubles. If they ask, they do not mean it. Just look pretty, smile, recite your niceties, and all will be well.”

“But, sir,” I said, “my heart hurts, sir. I do not feel anything behind the smile. It is not real.”

“Of course it isn’t,” they said. “No one’s smile is real.”

So I smiled.

“But, sir,” I said, “the world is hard, sir. I know a girl who is starving herself because the world keeps telling her she’s too fat. I know a girl who was raped and will never see justice done because nobody believes her. I know a boy who parties every night, and I warn him to be safe because I fear that he will flirt with the wrong man and get beaten for it. I am scared, sir, because this world makes me scared, but I don’t know how to fix it without talking about it, sir.”

“You can’t,” they said. “There is nothing you can do. The world is hard, and that is all there is to it. There is no saving anyone. There is no fixing anything. Stay silent, child, for nothing that you say will matter anyway.”

So I was silent.

“But, sir,” I said, “I cannot stand this. My heart aches all the time, sir. I stay up at night and I listen to them cry, and I want to help them. This world is terrifying, sir. Is there truly nothing I can do?”

“You can be happy with your lot, child,” they said. “You can be grateful that you are not them, and you can rest easily knowing that things could always be worse. Do not complain, do not cry, because there is always someone out there who has it worse than you do.”

And so I tried to be happy. I really, truly tried.

“But, sir,” I said, “my heart still hurts. My heart hurts, and I feel it in my soul now. I carved red lines into my arm today, sir. I cannot contain this fear, it is everywhere, sir, it is inside my skin and I cannot escape it or ignore it anymore. Please, sir. My own blood is on my hands, and I need to do something.”

“You are wrong to think so,” they said. “Are you not grateful? Are you not happy? What is wrong with you, what makes you carve red lines into your arm? Normal people do not do that, child. So cover your arms with your sleeves, put on that smile, and recite your niceties. That is all you have to do. Why are you making this so complicated?”

“But, sir,” I said, “I cannot do this anymore. I do not believe you. I think you are disillusioned, sir, and I think your advice hurts me in the long run. So, sir, I will no longer be taking your advice. Thank you for your attempt, I know you were only trying to help me, but I must try something different if I am going to stop being so afraid.”

And so I spoke. For the first time in my life, I spoke loudly and clearly, to anyone who would listen to me.

“What are you doing, child?” they said. “Nobody cares what you have to say! Nobody feels the same way as you! You are changing nothing in the world, and worse, you are making everybody hate you! We think you are crazy, child! We think you are too aggressive, and we think you must hate us if you dare not take our advice! Why are you doing this to us, child, when all we ever tried to do was help you? Why do you hurt us so?”

“But, sir,” I said, “for the first time in my life, my heart does not hurt. The red lines in my arm have left scars, but they have healed. I am alright, sir, and I will be alright, and none of this would have been possible if I did not talk. I want to do the same for others, sir. I want to make them feel safe to talk. I want to make sure they know that the option is open to them, that they do not have to live in silence, that they can be perceived as crazy or aggressive or wrong, and yet that does not necessarily mean that they are. And maybe my voice is just one among the million. Maybe it gets drowned out in the crowd, and maybe I’m heard by very few, but at least I’m heard. And at least I’m talking. Because I think I need to talk. I wasn’t made to be silent.”

I do not think they heard me. And yet, I speak.

 

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We Need to Listen

While I find my voice quite frequently in the form of writing, if you were to meet me face-to-face, you’d discover that I tend to be a very quiet person. And all my life, people have told me that this is a problem.

In school, my teachers would tell me again and again that I had very good things to say when they read my essays or my homework, but that I never contributed to the conversation in class. This more than anything brought my grade down.

At jobs, while I have absolutely no problem speaking the words that need to be spoken, and even engaging in conversations when I come across people who are particularly chatty, I have been told by employers that I need to be more talkative, more socially engaging, and if I can’t do that, then I shouldn’t be here.

In social settings, I have always felt bad about the fact that I am quiet. People will tell me things like “don’t be shy” or “you don’t need to be nervous”, but that has never been the case for me. I’m not shy, and people don’t make me nervous. I’m just quiet. That’s just the nature of me. When I am very talkative, that usually means one of two things: that a topic of conversation has been brought up that I am particularly passionate about, or that I am trying to push myself into a place where I am not being myself and I am not comfortable.

And I think that these two comments really sum up the misconception that tends to be made about me, or quiet people in general: that we’re shy. That we don’t like people. That people make us nervous, and as a result, we are weak, or there is something wrong with us. But, at least in my experience, none of this is true. I love people. I love to be around people, and I love to hear what they have to say, and I love to receive attention from them. And yet, I’m quiet.

And as much as I’ve heard people say, over and over again, that this is a character flaw of mine that needs to be overcome, as much as I’ve had people praise me for making myself uncomfortable and speaking when I wouldn’t normally have spoken, I disagree with all this. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’d understand forcing myself to be uncomfortable for something that I actually believed would make me a better person, but I don’t believe this will.

Because, while everyone else seems to believe that, when I’m not talking, I’m not doing anything, this isn’t the case. When I’m not talking, I’m listening, and I’m thinking. And these are two actions that I sincerely do not want to do less of.

Let’s go back to the classroom setting, for an easy example of what I mean here. When I was sitting in class, I was so busy listening to what my teachers and peers had to say that I wasn’t really thinking about what I could contribute myself, and this was what made me a decent student. Because I already knew my own thoughts on the matter, but I was obsessed with hearing other thoughts, because frequently enough, they differed from mine. And once I stocked up on all of these differing perspectives, when I left the classroom, I would sort through them, decide which perspectives made sense to me and which didn’t, and then I would take this thought and put it in my homework and essays. I felt that it was incredibly important for me to listen and think through everything I had heard because I didn’t think that my own opinion on the matter was wrong, but I firmly upheld the belief that my opinion wasn’t the only one that mattered. In fact, I sort of believed that all these opinions mattered, and that the truth lay somewhere in between them all.

And if I tried to tell this to my teachers, they would tell me that the other students could benefit from hearing my opinion as well, but when I tried to force myself to speak in class, then I found that I was so preoccupied with trying to come up with something to say that I forgot to even listen. And listening was just too important for me to give up.

And the classroom is not the only place where my penchant for listening has helped me. When a friend is going through a difficult time, before I judge or suggest any action for them to take, I make sure that I listen to them and try to understand what they are going through. I try to see things from all perspectives, and while this takes more time, it has also helped me gain a deeper kinship with certain people.

Listening has also helped me to become a much more empathetic person than I might otherwise be. For example, as a white woman, I have no idea what it is like to live life as a person of colour – I’ve never done it myself. But I have listened to people, and I have tried to understand them and think about their perspective. So while I am aware that my voice, when it comes to these matters, is not the most important voice, it is essential that I lend these matters my ear and my eye, because that is the only way that I will learn about them.

There is a time and a place to speak, and there is a time and a place to listen, and personally, I believe that one of our society’s problems is that we think that the time to speak is constant. We forget the value of listening, because everyone is so obsessed with talking, with having their voices heard above anyone else’s, that they’re completely forgetting that other perspectives even exist, or that they might also be important.

And we all, every single one of us, have something to say. But what good will that do if there is no one to hear it?