I have been thinking a lot about the energy I spend trying to interpret the silence of others – friends, loved ones, and lovers alike. I am consistently awed at the amount of time we spend interacting in our complicated social ecosystem and the plight of real, valuable communication. We talk more every day with complete strangers, but say very little. And in the relationships we truly value, we are (or become) completely silent.
Maybe silence is a byproduct of intimacy – a natural state of being that happens after the newness of a relationship wears off. When you become engulfed in and mentally wrestle with the abyss of deep, interpersonal communication, silence seems to be the only way to do so. I have always thought that a real sign of closeness is the ability to just be with someone and not feel the pressure to speak. I remember spending an afternoon with one of my dearest friends, laying around, drinking coffee, and listening to records. We maybe spoke 2 sentences to each other all day. I remember thinking, “Wow. We must be really good friends.” And sure enough, we still are years on and we certainly don’t talk every day. As was illustrated in my last post, communal silence often says way more.
The other side of the coin that I experience often though is how silence can breed laziness and loneliness, leaving the people we love guessing how we feel when it would be much easier on everyone to just say so. I have always felt there is nothing worse than being lonely with someone, especially someone you love (I, unlike many, would rather be lonely alone – it is much less confounding). For instance, those times in the middle of the night, maybe after a fight, when one person easily falls asleep and the other person is left awake, stewing by themselves. I’m not going to lie; I’m often the stew-er and those nights, well, suck. The person laying next to you might as well be a million miles away. And the quiet that is usually such a comfort becomes a pervasive black hole…
When I reflect on past relationships, there is often a large disconnect from the hormone-crazy, honeymoon phase that characterizes the first 6 months to the intimately silent comfort that defines the length of the relationship. I’ll admit, I have a shoebox for every boyfriend, full of notes, trinkets, and photos they have given me (or remind me of them). Each item is a small gesture, a symbol of the thought and energy someone had when they were thinking of me. What is more, they decided to put aside any insecurity or pride and give me this little bauble, no matter how trite it might appear. Even if that item is a rock or a silly photo or a little note, when I look at each one I still get the little bolt of electricity through my stomach because these things are not just things. They have become symbolic pieces of a shared story and, in moments of not so blissful interactions, a breadcrumb trail back to a happier time and what is ultimately the foundation of the relationship itself.
It is interesting when I go through these boxes and realize that all of the breadcrumbs pretty much taper off after a year. And while I hate to admit it for fear of sounding like a child, it makes me sad. I think it is a real folly for people to believe that being with someone for a long time means the inevitable breakdown of romance, sex, gestures, and conversation. I guess, along the same line of thinking, the replacement for each of these become the larger notions of stability, companionship, and other deeper emotional connections. And hopefully, for the sake of everyone in long-term relationships, this is true. But I talk to a lot of different people in and about relationships, have been in them myself, and in the interest of saying what a lot of people don’t want to admit, it is much more likely in theory than in practice.
These larger ideas of long-term emotional commitment are really difficult to grapple with. Often, there are no words to describe them because they are not so black and white. I think this is where the silence of intimacy comes from. But if being in a relationship is a daily exercise/struggle/what-have-you and “communication is key”, then it seems like our duty to our partner is to find words and gestures to express these difficult ideas, no matter what the cost (and I don’t mean financially). I speak from experience when I say that it is very difficult to tell if your partner’s silence is a product of he/she basking in the wealth of emotional depth in your relationship. Honestly, I would put my money on laziness or benign neglect.
These gestures I am talking about are simple in action and I think they get written off too easily. Much of what keeps a relationship going (especially if you can’t see each other every day) is reflection. It is no secret that memories get muddled and the mind has a way of bending emotions one way or another. The mind-emotion connection is complicated and I am certainly not an expert. But the feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you read the words someone wrote for you, no matter how small or grand the statement, is undeniable. Your stomach never lies and it lends credence to the overarching simplicity that should define our relationships when everything feels very complicated.
My relationship with the world tends to be pretty cerebral and intangible, which makes my penchant for tactile, physical experience much more necessary than other people. Physicality in all forms keeps me grounded. Many might think after reading a post like this that I am short-sighted, have never been in love, or value material goods more than people, which simply is not true. What is really driving this post is the realization that though our world has become less physical, more digital, chaotic, connected and, well, louder, there is a much larger sense of isolation and silence that was not there in the era of communing around the fireplace at night. When we spend our days in the throes of bullshitting with people we do not care about, we draw energy away from the people we actually do. When we have a moment of sincere silence, we will likely spend it on ourselves because it is so rare and necessary to recharge. So, if we can’t find the words to express to someone just how important they are to us, then we simply need to do this.
It can mean more in the end to the person that needs to hear it (and trust me, we all do) and more valuable day-to-day than any pregnant silence. The real mistake lies in not telling people how important they are to you before you no longer can. So, please figure out a way to add a little something to someone’s shoebox – it’s good for everyone.