Language and Silence

Think before you speak” can be good advice if you tend to blurt out things you later regret. But for some of us, it works even better to “Keep thinking while we’re speaking”.

I have an early memory of working out what I was going to say before opening my mouth, and then starting with a meaningless sound, “Umm”, as a strategy to prevent from stuttering on the first word out of the gate. I was reminded of that “language problem”, years later, while listening to a 45 rpm recording that my family had sent to my grandfather one year for Christmas. My mother, father, and sister all sounded like I was used to hearing them. But my voice sounded like a motor firing on one cylinder:

Hello Grandad . . . Merry Christmas . . . And New Year . . . Hope you have a good holiday . . . There . . . In Victoria . . .

An important book for me in my 20’s—one of several that my mentor, Eric, urged me to read–was “Language and Silence” by George Steiner. It introduced me to the power of the human mind in a time when civilization was breaking down. I am still grateful for the larger world it opened up for me.

For myself, it remains an interesting question how conducive to feeling at home in the world it was for an inexperienced adolescent to move directly from “Dale of the Mounted” to the thesis that after the holocaust we can no longer assume that “humanism” humanizes. The message that silence is the honest response to the barbarism that erupted from the heart of “civilization” was confusing for someone who had not yet found his own voice.

It can be useful to examine the legacy of language in our own lives. Realizing how speech is misused, not just in the public arena of empty promises and deception but in our personal relationship with others, we can still celebrate the gift of language in our lives.

Our heart is sometimes not a way station between what we think and what we say. But when words flow from our hearts, they are more likely to be relevant and true. Then we may not have to think before we speak, because what we hear ourselves saying is reminding us what is worth thinking about.

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