These last few weeks have attacked me with musings on silence. It started with an anonymous quote I couldn’t shake off (“Never miss an opportunity to remain silent”) and threaded its way through my intellectual and social life. I began to see my unwarranted eagerness to speak in classroom discussions, group conversations, and even social interactions.
Reading through the book of Proverbs a few days ago, then, I was struck by three verses, each of which promoted a helpful—and often overlooked—truth about the value of silence.
1. Listen Before You Speak
“If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” (Proverbs 18:13)
Embarrassingly enough, this verse reminds me of something I once did. I was in my cousins’ kitchen mixing cream cheese frosting, and my grandpa was sitting in the nearby dining room and kept giving me directions.
I don’t remember what all my grandpa said, but—frustrated at being told how to do something I’d done dozens of times before—I kept interrupting. “Yes, I know,” I interjected, beating in the confectioner’s sugar. “Yes, I was going to do that.”
I was baffled, then, when Grandpa got to the end of his sentence and told me to apply the frosting differently than I had planned. I looked up from my bowl. “Wait—what?” I asked, surprised. My cousins, who were standing nearby, laughed. “Yes,” they mimicked me. “Yes, yes, yes.”
The situation is a little funny to think about now, but it wasn’t so funny at the time. This verse from Proverbs was the first thing to enter my head, for I realized I’d foolishly answered before I’d heard.
Similarly, life often gives us the choice to stay quiet and listen or ignore external wisdom for the sake of quick, cheap answers. The former choice, though difficult, is the one to take. It might require practice, but the wisdom gleaned from listening is well worth it.
2. Don’t Focus on Your Own Thoughts First
“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” (Proverbs 18:2)
How many times has each of us endured a meeting with a bunch of lunatics?
Okay—maybe they weren’t quite lunatics. Maybe their suggestions were just impractical. Maybe there was a flaw in their proposed strategy. Maybe they kept mispronouncing a term. Perhaps we interrupt self-righteously. Let me enlighten you, we might think.
While I’m not against speaking up, the attitude with which many of us approach group conversations—whether they be formal think tanks, scheduled work meetings, or just casual hangouts with the gang—might require evaluation. For some of us, we’re tempted to think first about what we have to contribute and only later about what others might have to give. We run the danger of mentally elevating our own ideas, a priori dismissing those of others.
How might our conversations change if we focused first on understanding? What if we restrained ourselves from expressing our own opinions and sought—as hinted at in the first point—to listen? I’m convinced we’d understand a lot more because we’d be forced to forsake our own distracted musings to focus on the thoughts and ideas around us.
3. Remember Silence Can Signal Wisdom
“Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” (Proverbs 17:28)
Herein lies the paradox of silence: The action we believe to indicate foolishness—not saying what’s on our minds—actually demonstrates wisdom.
Why is this?
I think there are two reasons: First, it’s easy to speak. We all do it. We’ve probably done it today and didn’t even think about it. Silence—the intentional restraining of the tongue—is much harder. Not speaking connotes discipline and self-restraint; it shows that we have the ability to close our mouths when necessary. It’s an indication of wisdom because it demonstrates a life lived apart from the contemporary, constantly talking crowd.
Second, silence keeps one from betraying his own foolishness. Explicitly and implicitly, speech displays how much we do—or don’t—know. So, if we truly don’t know about a subject, it might be better to keep our mouths shut. In the words of an unknown sage, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.”
What Proverbs Doesn’t Say
Of course, the book of Proverbs doesn’t condemn speech. In fact, the author commends those who speak up for the unfortunate (Proverbs 31:8–9) and says that “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). In other words, words are powerful, and they ought to be used prudently in serving others.
Still, it’s safe to say that—in an age saturated with cell phones, instant messaging, and almost innumerable outlets for all forms of communication—many of our difficulties arise from speaking, not silence. We would do well to learn what our society is so quick to forget: the value of listening before we speak, focusing on the ideas of others, and wisely staying silent before we open our mouths.
Image credit: Flickr-Dunedin Public Libraries, CC BY-NC 2.0