So many times in my life I’ve had to face the same vexing question: “What does this silence mean?”
It’s true that, even when somebody says something, it might not always be crystal clear just how one should take it. But generally, in such instances, we have a reasonable understanding of what’s going on between ourselves and the other person.
But silence is different.
(At least with those silences where the other person is out of sight. If they were right in the same room, one still knows some important things about the situation. You know, for example, that they are alive.
But if the silence is an unanswered phone call, or email, one knows nothing.)
My favorite scene from the film "Dances With Wolves" is where a couple of men come upon a skeleton lying on a grassy hill in the Dakotas, an arrow still penetrating the ribs. One of the men says, with macabre humor, “Folks back East are wonderin’: ‘Why don’t he write?’”
It seems that I’ve often been uncertain whether the silence was a sign of something having broken in the connection between myself and the other person (was there something I said?), or whether some big problem had arisen in their life (including the possibility that the answer to “Why don’t he write?” is essentially what it’s like that for the skeleton in the grass of the Dakotas), or where it was something else entirely.
Over the years, it has occasionally been the case that something pretty bad had happened. On other occasions, the person just proved to be inconsiderate in a way I didn’t expect. Sometimes, there was an issue between us that needed to be dealt with.
What I’ve learned over the years is this: One really has no idea what the silence means!
Acknowledging that has made me better at dealing with such silences. It has helped because I used to be more likely to jump to unhappy conclusions, believing that the good bond of friendship I had valued, and had believed would stay in place, had been lost.
(Love lost is a loss. And I don’t like dealing with loss.)
It was one particular case of silence that did the most to teach me not to jump to conclusions.
That silence — which lasted for 15 years — was silence from a woman to whom I’d once been engaged. She was someone with whom I’d have preferred to maintain a caring friendship because we’d always been pretty good to each other.
(She was the kind of person who, a month after we’d agreed to break our engagement and had declared our romance finished, would fly halfway across the country to support me at the funeral of my father.)
Not very long thereafter, she’d married a man her family appreciated for his having a high status background they hadn’t seen in me. And that whole episode, including a last unsatisfying exchange between us, followed by that years-long silence from her side, left me with a sense that her silence expressed a degree of rejection and perhaps disdain.
I found it a painful way to picture our relationship.
But then — after 15 years — I found out the truth. She had been through a nightmare with that husband with the fancy background. And I discovered that the whole nature and meaning of her silence was completely different from what I had imagined.
So I learned: Hold off judgment because you really don’t know.
The other thing I’ve learned is that it’s better to find out what the silence means than to just let it sit there, festering in my mind, bringing with it the various kinds of concern that lurk around the uncertainty.
Life is filled with many uncertainties. And one of the great things about good relationships is that they’re something we can rely on. We’ve got enough uncertainties without having our relationships pile more on us.
So if a silence goes on long enough, I’ll generally try to check into it to either build the connection better or to readjust expectations in the relationship so that what’s given and what’s expected are in balance (which might require backing off, diminishing the relationship).
Better to communicate and get clarity, I feel, than to remain in a state of uncertainty, ambiguity, ongoing disappointment (all of those being drains on our energy, distractions of our attention, drags on our well-being).
Whatever the situation behind the silence, my general philosophy here — as more generally — is that the truth shall set you free.