Don’t be louder, be better.
I remember the last time my mouth really, really got me into trouble. I spit some really insensitive and clumsily-worded napalm into the Twitter machine, and out popped an outrage tsunami. I got blasted by conservative firebrands like Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter. My lifelong dream publication ripped up my freelance writing contract. I was written up at my day job, and I handed over the keys to the corporate Twitter account. I fielded death threats. I was forced to cancel all music performances for the next two weeks. I couldn’t google myself — me, with my common name — for a healthy three months. If you google me, and look hard enough, you’ll find out why.
I sunk into a deep, dark and bitter place. I was already depressed and anxious, but that was the day I first became angry. At the world, sure, but mostly at myself. I spent most evenings with Xanax, a bottle of prosecco, a pack of Camels, Velveeta shells-and-cheese and Netflix — indulging in all of it in rotation until I passed out at 8:30 on a weeknight, and my girlfriend would come home and comment on how “tired” I must be to sleep so early and for so long. I went dark on social media, stopped going out to see friends, stopped playing music, stopped sharing personal details with people, stopped writing any more than absolutely necessary, and waited for people to miss me. Spoiler alert: They didn’t. They mostly just left.
During my nine-month relative silence, I did a lot of thinking — most of it painfully destructive, but occasionally lucid. It’s really easy to get lost in thought when you’re not doing a lot of talking. I came to a series of revelations, many of which I didn’t feel comfortable disclosing right away. I wanted to let them marinate, hold them fully in my head, until I stopped hurting. I wondered, as I drifted farther and farther away from people, why I felt so chronically misunderstood. And I came to a harsh, extraordinary truth: Nobody wants to understand you. They want to feel like you understand them. And it’s in service of this truth, where you can harness the true power of shutting the fuck up.
We spend a surprising amount of our time roaming this rock not actively communicating with people. For as social as we are, our chatting is merely the tip of the iceberg. It’s what’s above the water. Most of what we are, the part that truly craves being seen, lays hidden and still. We are, almost entirely, a rolling burble of thoughts and feelings. They rise and fall like the tides. They often govern how we love, how we change, how we feel in the present, and even — on occasion — how we die. And other than love, change, death and the present, there isn’t anything else that’s real. Our thoughts and feelings determine our reality — and also shield us from it.
By wrapping ourselves in our thoughts and feelings — specifically our memories, our opinions and our expectations, all of which are ego-driven reflections and not reality itself, we craft an alternate universe. And when we communicate from that place, we’re low-key lying: to ourselves, to our family and friends, to our peers and bosses, to the Twitter machine.
Merely being aware of the din below the surface, drawing it out, and letting it pass can free us from the weight of this alternate universe, and allow us to live more truthfully. Rather than communicate and shout our every piece of brain content into the vast abyss, we can pause. When we ask ourselves upon noticing something bubble up to the surface if this a memory, an opinion or an expectation, then we can throw out the falsehoods that plague our minds. We can free our hearts and minds from the load that we carry. We can find peace and quiet. We can better understand others, and feel more easily understood. It all starts with silence.
“Nobody cares how good you are,” one of my former girlfriends once said to me. Perhaps you’ve seen the grandstanding, the humble-bragging, the announcements, the megaphone of joy all over your social feeds. Perhaps it’s been enough to cause you to unfollow or unfriend. It’s okay. I’ve been on both ends of it, too. This is the bullshit alternate universe. This is the past and the future, the ego, the id, and the superego, the reflections of things and not the things themselves. This is the loud. The loud is not where the truth lies, and not where life happens. People don’t want to understand you. They want to feel understood. Truly, nobody cares how good you are, with one major … major exception.
Nobody cares how good you are … they care how good you are for them. And how good you are for them depends on how understood they feel in your presence. Do you get them? Do you truly know them? Do you see them for who they are? All of this comes from quiet. Those awkward pauses between dialogue. In the calm comfort of each other’s company. In the easy moments where we do and not speak. In the ways we come through for people in unexpected ways. This is how you become good, and this is the only time when people will care about it. By tossing aside our desire to be heard, and quelling the impulse to speak when not called upon, we can truly listen and more fully inhabit reality. We can catch and hold competing ideas in our head, and release the ones that no longer serve us.
The other night, I received a text I wasn’t ready for. Someone accused me of trying to run a long con on them, romantically. She said my full transparency and lack of desire for anything serious meant I was using her as an emotional dumping ground. I thought very briefly about how to respond. I knew how I would’ve responded in the past. I would’ve spit insensitive and clumsily-worded napalm into the text machine, and out would’ve popped an outrage tsunami.
Instead, I paused … and in the quiet, I saw her. I felt her. I didn’t read her words. I listened. I called her assessment fair, and was able to see her perspective. I respected her feelings and appreciated her candor. And that diffused the bomb that was ticking. And then we made plans to see each other again.
I didn’t defend myself. I didn’t try to clarify anything. I didn’t try to get her to understand me. Nobody wants to understand me. They want to feel understood. Understanding takes quiet. Quiet takes effort. And it won’t always come.
I briefly wish I knew this earlier in my life, then I recognize this desire as my mind fixating on a memory, an opinion and an expectation, and I throw it back into the sea. It settles in the din below the surface, sinks and passes. And, again, all is quiet.