Silence, secrets, and pain

I’m a happy man. I often tell my wife I’m the luckiest man in the world. But like anyone who is human I have had to learn something about carrying pain. By the way, a great movie on that is Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. Watch it for Rod Steiger’s masterful portrayal of a Tzadik who is trying to raise his son through silence, to carry pain in silence.

I am prompted to write these things¬† by the compelling and gut-wrenching article yesterday by Penelope Trunk (her pen name). As a Tweeter, she is better than anyone I know at writing a story — beginning, middle, and end — in one 140-character kernel. There’s a world of wit that I can learn from her. And as a blogger, she grabs me by the ears and gets me to look into her eyes as she narrates her struggles, laughs, business adventures… and yes, the salacious details of her personal life. She lives the dictum, “it’s all business … and it’s all personal.”

I suppose like a lot of folks I was both moved and squeamish at the utterly naked self-revealment of Penelope’s yesterday post. It brought laughter, and it brought tears. It brought sympathy, and it brought empathy for a lot of things that I can only imagine… It also makes me and many of us appreciate that she’s willing to help us cross that bridge to understanding of the dark regions that are destroying so many souls and dragging down so many social institutions. Of course these are the most important issues facing our culture, and of course we are all powerless to do much about them… but it somehow feels helpful to both acknowledge what’s in the dark, and smile at the optimistic, celebratory way she lives with her loves and her children, in spite of the pain she is carrying.

As a fellow blogger, her candor confronts me with the obvious question: Am I willing to be that open about my life? Yes and no. Yes, I am open about all the abuses, rapes, flings, or affairs in my life. All the times I’ve been drunk, hit someone, or wrecked the car. And the fact is I’m lucky. There are none. Not even fantasies. I long ago made a covenant with my eyes, I never drink more than a single glass of beer or wine, and I don’t even look at porn (other than one month when I took home a buddy’s Playboy when I was 15, and pretty much memorized it before I threw it out and never went down that path again).

I have had a significant business failure. I promise you’ll hear more about it.

But also, No, I am not going to blog about my intimate moments.¬† Not because I have anything to hide, but because they are mine and my wife’s alone. They are not secret; they are understood by anyone who shares that level of intimacy with one person; and if I did share them it wouldn’t help someone who craves intimacy to find it.

Naturally, that means my personal reflections will never be as interesting as Penelope’s. Nor will I ever be nearly as helpful as she is in healing those with damage in their past.

That doesn’t make me feel righteous, nor does it make me feel distance from Penelope (although it does make me feel a little envious of her blog stats). I so very much appreciate her candor, and through the printed word I feel like we would be (just) friends if we could have a conversation at a restaurant… I’d have to say the emotional connection I feel toward someone like Penelope is more than I feel with so very many of the friends I’ve grown up with in religious circles. Why is that? Why does a person who has so much pain in their soul, and so much distance from “proper” lifestyles — and yet so much laughter in her heart — feel like more of a buddy than folks I know well, who acknowledge the same moral code and spiritual values as I do… at least on paper?

I think that the reason goes back to the one college class I did take (see previous post). I took a class at Ohio State on small group communication, and as the term paper for the class I did research on the issue of self-revealment. I went to a number of AA meetings, and took note of where people sat and what they said. People who were willing to reveal themselves tended to sit up front, while folks who were just listening sat in the back. Breakthroughs occurred when someone in the back would stand up and tell their story for the first time. I concluded that the folks who were helped by AA were the ones who were willing to reveal themselves; and the more self-revealing they did, the more they grew and became a help to others.

Most of my religious friends don’t pour out their souls. They play it close to the vest. Not me. I make them uncomfortable by being way more open than they are willing to be. It lets them look down at me for having visible foibles; and it makes me discouraged to be in their presence, as I realize that with their limited self-awareness, they are unable to appreciate the strength it takes to reveal one’s faults. Far easier to imagine oneself as whole and healthy.

So when I see self-revealment and nakedness, especially about pain and failure, I am drawn to it like a fly on paper. I appreciate it, and I savor the honesty and humor that really makes people like Penelope … people who are carrying pain in silence most of the time … truly delightful to know and appreciate and share a cold beer with.

Here’s one of my favorite poems, by Edgar Lee Masters:

I have known the silence of the stars and of the sea,
And the silence of the city when it pauses,
And the silence of a man and a maid,
And the silence of the sick
When their eyes roam about the room.
And I ask: For the depths,
Of what use is language?
A beast of the field moans a few times
When death takes its young.
And we are voiceless in the presence of realities –
We cannot speak.

A curious boy asks an old soldier
Sitting in front of the grocery store,
“How did you lose your leg?”
And the old soldier is struck with silence,
Or his mind flies away
Because he cannot concentrate it on Gettysburg.
It comes back jocosely
And he says, “A bear bit it off.”
And the boy wonders, while the old soldier
Dumbly, feebly lives over
The flashes of guns, the thunder of cannon,
The shrieks of the slain,
And himself lying on the ground,
And the hospital surgeons, the knives,
And the long days in bed.
But if he could describe it all
He would be an artist.
But if he were an artist there would be deeper wounds
Which he could not describe.

There is the silence of a great hatred,
And the silence of a great love,
And the silence of an embittered friendship.
There is the silence of a spiritual crisis,
Through which your soul, exquisitely tortured,
Comes with visions not to be uttered
Into a realm of higher life.
There is the silence of defeat.
There is the silence of those unjustly punished;
And the silence of the dying whose hand
Suddenly grips yours.
There is the silence between father and son,
When the father cannot explain his life,
Even though he be misunderstood for it.

There is the silence that comes between husband and wife.
There is the silence of those who have failed;
And the vast silence that covers
Broken nations and vanquished leaders.
There is the silence of Lincoln,
Thinking of the poverty of his youth.
And the silence of Napoleon
After Waterloo.
And the silence of Jeanne d’Arc
Saying amid the flames, “Blessed Jesus” –
Revealing in two words all sorrows, all hope.
And there is the silence of age,
Too full of wisdom for the tongue to utter it
In words intelligible to those who have not lived
The great range of life.

And there is the silence of the dead.
If we who are in life cannot speak
Of profound experiences,
Why do you marvel that the dead
Do not tell you of death?
Their silence shall be interpreted
As we approach them.

For me, I’ll have to ask your forgiveness for being silent about some things as a blogger. I pledge that I won’t keep any secrets — anything you need to know, or that would discredit me if you knew it. But I also choose to be silent about those things that would, in my case, simply detract from the privacy and intimacy that I need to function as a healthy person in relationship with others. And yet, I am appreciative of those who have the experience and can find the voice to express those things, or the pain that comes with the lack of those things. Thank you, Penelope, and if you ever want to converse privately, write to me.

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