To Speak, or Not to Speak?

I’ve been overwhelmed with the response I’ve received from this blog so far… so overwhelmed that I’ve decided to retreat into total silence for two months. What gives?

First and foremost, my words have started conversations with people I have not spoken to in decades. I have heard them open up about their struggles and affirm solidarity with my own. This is a truly a beautiful thing! Now, I no longer feel like the black sheep of my religious youth; I’m just yet another member of a flock that got kinda fucked. Whoopee!

We don’t all agree, and I won’t diminish the great varieties of our religious experience. But in sharing my perspective, I have opened the door for others to share in turn. I have learned more from the whole of them then I could ever learn from the one of me. I am so grateful to have started that conversation. It riddles me with joy.

Yet secondly, I must fearfully admit that my words have also caused harm. For a deeply sensitive person, this is basically the deadliest of deadly sins, and proof of what you’ve always feared to be true: that you’re secretly an inhuman monster, worthy of zero love and infinite hellfire.

Sometimes good conversations can be difficult conversations, and that’s all well and fine. But often times our words can harden the very audience they are intended to soften, or even worse: dismiss them outright. This forces me to remind myself, always, that my impact is far greater than my intent. If too much is spoken, there will be no room to listen and respond; if all is silent, pain will fester into suffering.

In response to that, I’d normally restrain myself and remain silent (read: squish my complex emotions into a tiny time-bomb, swallow it, and self-medicate). Actually, that’s what I’ve been doing for the past two months. It worked about as well as it has for the past ten years – which is to say, not at all.

Being raised Midwestern and Protestant, I had believed that self-repression was to the supposed benefit of everyone around me. In light of harm, that sort of thinking makes perfect sense: should your speaking hurt others, don’t speak. End of discussion. Literally.

Were it only so simple! For even though I have unleashed suffering, I have also ushered in healing. I have no problem being cruel to myself, but remaining silent would be unjustly cruel to those who would be aided by my words; in turn, speaking would be cruel to those harmed by them. Call it a pickle, a predicament, or a paradox: whatever it is, I abhor it even more than nature abhors a vacuum… and I respond quite similarly.

In response to such paralyzing paradoxes, most of us automatically adopt survival strategies to ease the cognitive dissonance and… you know, feel good. Unfortunately, most of these are overly simplistic solutions. And, like every other black-and-white dynamic of fundamental thought, they fall into the same, tired this-versus-that format:

I am good, they are evil. My actions may cause harm to some, but only to the bad guys! So as long as I’m helping the good guys, it’s OK if my actions cause the bad guys harm. They deserve it, anyway.

I am the victim, they are the oppressor. If my words make the oppressors feel bad, tough shit! Maybe if they stopped being such cruel masters, I wouldn’t have to respond to them with extreme rebellion.

I am right, they are wrong. It’s not my fault if someone is too ignorant to see the truth, or too offended by the truth to believe it. If they suffer, it’s only because of their own unrelenting stupidity.

In response to the problem of healing and suffering, these arguments seek to invalidate the sufferer. Nevermind the Golden Rule: I will do unto others as they would do unto me, unless they don’t deserve it. In that case… well, fuck ’em.

Whenever we fall into this perspective – and these days, who among us hasn’t? – we de facto defend cruelty and give ourselves carte blanche to use it. We allow cruelty to become synonymous with our cause, under the guise of a greater good, or holy war.

But goodness can never be achieved by means of cruelty or control. That is not the path to salvation, nor is it evangelism. We could use our energy to listen to the pain of others, and ease them into a life of less suffering; instead, we silence them. We invalidate them. We become a living theodicy of our own indifference.

But at least we feel better, right…?

This phenomenon is known as spiritual bypassing, which can be easily diagnosed by answering one simple question: does whatever I believe allow me to reject or invalidate the suffering of others, or even of myself?

If you’re simply too enlightened-or-whatever to fall into this trap, please be aware that even the most sophisticated of spiritualists are vulnerable to it, from Atheist to Zoroastrian and everything in between.

Even with this diagnosis, we’ve yet to solve the dilemma: if our actions and beliefs offer both help and harm simultaneously, how can we justify them? How could we justify remaining silent when others need aid? How can we justify speaking out when it causes harm, or leads to results beyond our intentions?

In truth, my agnosticism (read: *shrug*) is a response to exactly this problem. I refuse to believe there is a simple solution to end the debate, and I refuse to put my faith in any philosophy that simply makes me feel better while allowing me the freedom to ignore the painful reality of the world and the people around me.

I don’t feel better about sending you to hell just because I can win big in heaven. I don’t feel better letting the planet wither away just because it’s merely a stepping stone to God’s Kingdom. I don’t feel better calling you an ignorant racist xenophobic prick just so I can invalidate your feelings and dismiss you. I don’t feel better making you feel better while restricting someone else from feeling anything at all.

But instead of continuing to agonize without aim, here’s what I can do: I will speak, and I will also listen. Should my words bring healing to others, I will listen to understand how and why. When my words bring harm, I will listen to understand how and why. It doesn’t really feel better at all, but goddamnit, it feels right (Protestant Midwestern, like I said).

So, since this blog is as much about you as it is about me, I hope you can say this with me:

I will choose to be held accountable. I will take responsibility for my actions, even – and especially – when their outcome betrays my intention. And when I find the urge to compulsively defend myself, I will instead treat your words and your feelings with the same weight as my own. I will not dismiss them. I will not reject you.

I will speak, and I will listenTo do this is to be accountable. To reject this is to reject responsibility  – to become as Pontius Pilate, and wash your bloodstained hands.

Speak. Listen. This is literally all it takes to keep a conversation going, in a democracy or a religion or a family. Doing anything less would be skirting our ultimate responsibilities  – responsibility to ourselves, responsibility to love, and responsibility to each other.

I’m listening.

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