The Lost Art of Shutting The F**k Up
Don’t be louder, be better.
Iremember 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. Conservative firebrands like Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter blasted me. My lifelong dream publication ripped up my freelance writing contract. My day job wrote me up, and suspended my corporate Twitter account. I fielded death threats. I was forced to cancel all music performances for the next two weeks due to seething calls from strangers. I couldn’t google myself for a solid three months — me, with my common name, and so many other more famous John Gormans in the world (seriously, there are nine with Wikipedia pages). If you were ever curious enough to google me, and if you looked hard enough, you’ll find out why. I don’t remember what I said. I’m not going to look, and I don’t intend to ever revisit it.
From there, I sunk into a deep, dark and bitter place. I was already depressed and anxious, but that was the first day I 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 at the time 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 that lengthy period of silence, I did a lot of thinking — most of it painfully destructive, some of it occasionally lucid. It’s really easy to get lost in thought when you’re not doing a lot of talking.
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, that today we’re going to talk about the true power of shutting the fuck up.
We spend a surprising amount of our time roaming this rock not actively communicating with people. Really. 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. We’re fake news-ing ourselves. And isn’t that really a contributing factor to so many ills, personal and societal? Just a bunch of us wrapped up in our own heads — screaming at each other about the demons taking up residence?
We can free ourselves from the weight of this alternate universe by merely being aware of the din below the surface, drawing it out, and letting it pass. Rather than shout our every 1/50th of a dollar into the vast abyss, we can pause and save up until we find something truly valuable worth saying. Upon noticing something bubble up to the surface, we can ask ourselves if something is real or if it merely feels real. 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,” an ex-girlfriend once said to me. This was her life mantra of choice, and she didn’t just say it, she lived it, which is why she never had much use for social media. It’s easy to understand why.
Perhaps you’ve seen grandstanding, humble-bragging, royal decrees, and the megaphone of joy all over your social feeds. Perhaps you saw one person do all of this so much that it caused you to hit “mute” or “unfollow” or “unfriend.” (Full disclosure: I’ve been on both ends of that decision, too.) This is the bullshit alternate universe. This is the past and the future, the ego (Facebook), the id (Twitter), and the superego (Instagram), 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. How do people decide if you’re good for them?
It 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 in between the dialogue. In the calm comfort of each other’s company. In the easy moments where we are and not speak. In the ways we come through for people in unexpected ways. This is how you become good in a way that people will care about. 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 inferred from my full transparency and lack of desire for anything serious that I was using her as an emotional dumping ground. I thought 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. Don’t be louder, be better, I thought.
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 said I was able to see her perspective. I told her I respected her feelings and appreciated her candor. And that tiny text — I said almost nothing else — 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 even with effort, the quiet won’t always come. I know it doesn’t always for me.
I briefly wish I knew about silence earlier in my life, when I was all bluster and broadcast, and then I recognize this desire as my mind fixating on a memory that no longer serves me, and I throw it gently back into the sea. It settles in the din back below the surface, sinks and passes. And, again, all is quiet.