When I was a young boyish thing and behaved in a manner displeasing to my parents, something I did often and with a disturbing regularity, they would yell at me and beat me with a belt. When upset, my parents would berate me then belt me. It was pretty scary. And painful. Usually, this expression would be the result of my mom being really mad at my dad or my dad being really mad at pretty much everything. Which he was. Pretty much.
Mom would be mad at dad for all manner of disgraceful behavior and my acting out would inspire her lashing out. Dad would come home and mom would unleash her ire on him and he would share his response ire on my brother and me. We got a lot of attention this way.
As I got older and bigger, it became too weird for grown-up parents to spank nearly grown-up kids, so my mom would just yell and threaten to kick me out and my dad would yell and we’d put on the boxing gloves and he’d beat me up that way. Until I got old enough to hit back. Then he made it clear that should the time come that I could beat him up, he’d kick me out. Beatings in, kicking out. A stable environment to be sure.
So to keep a roof, I took my beatings and verbal debasement, but I did something else which changed the dynamic considerably – I became edumacated. I got too smart for simple angry drunken berating and I learned to fend off physical blows. I learned to defend myself.
Thus in my early teens my dad went from way too much personal attention to the silent treatment. I would do something or say something that would upset him or worse, my mom – I did that a lot. Where before he could work out his difficulties by pummeling me and telling me what a stupid piece of shit I was, now I had become too big a threat: I could hit back while thwarting his blows and I could reason. His position of bully was challenged.
So he would just not talk to me. Weeks at a time. I went from being way too obvious to being invisible. I became a non-entity unworthy of even the courtesy of a ‘hello’ or ‘good morning’ or the honest respect of a ‘fuck you!’ Often, I wouldn’t even know why he was upset with me and my mom would dismiss it, “You know how your father gets….”
It was maddening. It seemed puerile and contrary to communication. While I could talk to him about political and social issues, personal stuff was just not broached. I didn’t find out where my dad was born until after he died. His brother told me.
On occasion, as a childish adult, I will slip into it. I’ll just not talk or respond with clipped and dismissive retorts when pressed, perhaps my dad telling me to shut up so I don’t make it worse. After a period of self-loathing, I’ll remember from where that germinated and open up and own my puerile and counter-productive behavior. I’ll be as adult and discuss rather than as child, “I’m not talking to you!”
And while I do this thing less and less, preferring communication to silent self-pity, I find that it exists abundantly around me. I find that my contemporaries, my friends, family, even my own kids give me the silent treatment. I see others get it from their fellows as well and wonder what we think we accomplish by ignoring each other. The last decade of my father’s life we very rarely spoke and I know I am not better for it.
The last words I spoke to him were to his dying gray face, his eyes staring into a catatonic space with no hope of recovery or communication. I opened up to this wreck of a man only to receive that silence I had grown accustomed to, his final silent treatment. Then he was gone.
We do ourselves and our loves a horrible disservice by ignoring each other. If we feel upset and hold it in and let it fester and grow, it isn’t the thing that upsets us which drives us apart, it is our perception of it. Our manifestation of it. By talking or otherwise communicating with each other, we expand our perception and our capacity to understand and forgive. We manifest empathy.
We all say and do things which others find distressing or even hurtful – if not, we’re not saying or doing anything much. The safe road is short and sweet and virtually impossible to learn anything upon. Communication entails risk because in it we risk being wrong. We risk having to defend an untenable position. We risk being embarrassed.
To communicate is to make mistakes, but to communicate is also to rectify them. That which silence communicates is dismissive, almost punitive, “You are unworthy of my attention”. Communication is give and take, not just give and give or take and take. More and more we find ourselves in story telling competitions, responding to one story with another. As Marla Singer opined in Fight Club we don’t really listen so much as “Wait for our turn to talk”.
One of the hardest challenges we present ourselves in the West is the challenge of admitting error. Embarrassment is one of the worst afflictions known to man: We kill or die to avoid it. What were duels fought over? “You’ve offended my honor…” You’ve embarrassed me. What is internet bullying? Some kids embarrassing some other kids to death, embarrassing them so badly they kill themselves or others.
With all the horrors we as a species have created and perpetrated, the thing that makes all the others pale by comparison is personal embarrassment. That’s all.
We ignore somebody then must continue to because we’re too embarrassed to explain why we ignored them in the first place. Soon we avoid each other and we don’t even remember why. Or we do, which drives us only further apart. We hold on to that which separates us while casting off all that holds us together.
The justifications are well known: I’m too busy; We’ve grown apart; I’ve put them behind me; I’ve grown, but they’ve stayed the same; I’m too deeply offended to risk expressing why; I don’t like you anymore.
This is not to suggest that any or all of these sentiments are not valid or appropriate. In time we find things in some people we felt close to that we can no longer ignore: things which diminish ardor. Often people will present themselves as close to us to gain advantage; they will feign friendship or even love to get something they seek. This is the very foundation of capitalism – work everything and everyone to your advantage – and we are well versed in it. Often instead of talking, we negotiate. Our relationships become transactions instead of interactions.
Some people are not very nice yet conceal it by shows of affection or appreciation which make us drop our guard – who doesn’t love being loved or appreciated? When people say nice things about us to us or others we find immediate accord – it is natural being receptive to that receptive to us. Sometimes it takes years to see through a clever mask, especially when seeing through it will diminish those false perceptions we’ve embraced. To reject the liar is to lose the lie.
Admitting we’re in a bad relationship or being used by our 'friends' and supposed well-wishers is embarrassing. We appear stupid and naïve. We hate feeling that way. So relations which should end will go on way too long and then crumble when advantage dissipates. And we end up feeling stupid and naïve.
So instead, we embrace the notion that we have infinite friends or worse, no need for them and dismiss those who annoy or challenge us because it is easier than doing the work to maintain relations. Our opinions become more important than our relationships. Our ideas become greater than our loves.
Can amity or love or friendship be so easily derailed by words, albeit stupid, thoughtless or just poorly considered, or by an action which offends? Are a thousand decent actions trumped by a single callous one? Are a hundred decencies trumped by ten indecencies?
In our culture people are elevated in many cases for the simple pleasure of knocking them down. Instead of doing the work of raising ourselves, we feel better by diminishing others. It’s easier.
Our media is all about shame: the shame of a politician or religious leader or sports figure or our favorite, the shame of a celebrity. We all figure we’re better than celebrities, hell, they’re just a bunch of show offs. When they get found out to be gay or addicted or queer or brutal or homosexual or stupid, we love that. Take them down a peg, a whole peg!
Tabloids are embarrassment sheets. Newspapers become more tabloidian each passing year: big provocative pictures on the front above the fold, shock headlines and punny subheads. Rumor portrayed as fact, unnamed sources providing dubious reports, scandalizing private indiscretions while ignoring breaches in the public trust. Online, everyone is fair game. Embarrass and conquer!
In silence nothing is communicated but dismissiveness and to dismiss each other is to find ourselves alone, afraid of being embarrassed to the point of never speaking, hearing, never responding. Casting off more and more people we actually care about because we can’t face the risk of embarrassment which comes in explaining why we don’t talk to each other. Most I suspect would rather just talk. The reasons we like each other shouldn’t be diminished by disagreement between us. If it is, perhaps we really don’t like each other.
Affection seeks accord, disaffection, discord.
To love each other is to let each other know, through word and deed. To love each other is forgive and understand. We for the most part can’t know how long we have here, above ground and those things which should have been said and can’t be because we waited too long resound in our minds until our time comes and they are spoken but to the ether.
Speak with those you love before the opportunity passes. Death is the silent treatment, eternal.