Although popular wisdom proclaims silence is golden, in some circumstances silence can also be a form of bullying. As humans, our basic needs go beyond sustenance and shelter for our mortal bodies. God has endowed us with an intrinsic need for love as well. Communication becomes a vehicle for that love. We live our lives yearning to be heard and to be understood.
The Quiet Bullying of Silence
There is a healthy use of silence to compose our thoughts and calm anger which can be of great benefit but sometimes an extended period of punishing silence causes pain to the other. In one way or another, we have all used silence as a weapon against another. Showing a cold shoulder or ignoring someone because of some real or imagined indiscretion can be a pain inflicting tactic. Whether a school friend or significant other, sometimes our intent is to inflict the pain of denying the victim our company. In self-righteous fashion, we withhold ourselves from them and leave them with the pain of silence – of being shunned.
Silence as Pride
The sin of pride comes to mind. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), “the root of all sins lies in man’s heart”. (CCC 1873) As we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we recite words that ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. In calling down the same judgment on ourselves that we hold against others, we should attempt to soften our hearts to the pain of others. Yet in building an artificial distance between ourselves and another, we erect a wall of pain and isolation, one that will cause another to suffer. Again, looking to our own experience we begin to realize that silence does cause pain. The pain of silence becomes apparent when we are the ones who are shunned, unable to plead our case, ask forgiveness, or perhaps even understand the perceived transgression.
Spreading the Pain
Calculated silence takes on a deeper, more hurtful dimension when others are pulled into participation. Emotional blackmail can cause group silence, thus increasing the pain of the one who is cut off. Again our Faith tells us not to err by leading others, or ourselves, into sin.
Refusing to Talk
Sometimes the harshest punishment for some deduced transgression is to say “I don’t want to talk about it”. The injustice of denying communication leaves injuries on both parties that may not even be justified. Allowing an explanation may find the faulty words were much more benign than they were perceived.
Perhaps, though, the words did intentionally inflict pain. After some thought, there was repentance and a desire for forgiveness. However, the barriers built by silence became impenetrable. In situations such as this the injury sustained by both parties, inflicted on their very souls, is harmful. As a recent radio host on Catholic radio explained, repressed emotion – especially anger – can have a harmful effect on both the mental and physical well-being of a person.
The Spiritual Cost
There is also a spiritual cost. Bullying silence can become sinful. If we are admonished to forgive “not just seven times, but seventy-seven times”, then are we not also bound to break the silence and allow another to speak his peace? Since the Lord confused man’s speech due to the Tower of Babel, mankind has struggled with inadequate communication. The least we can do for justice is to give a fair hearing to those who stand accused.
The Bible on Forgiveness
From the Beatitudes to the Lord’s Prayer, we are admonished to be merciful, to forgive, and that our own judgment depends on our judgment of others. Scripture is full of instances encouraging forgiveness but how can there be forgiveness if silence stands in the way?
“And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” Mark 11:25
This Lent presents an inspirational opportunity to put the hurt feelings and accusations behind us. As we focus on fasting, prayer, and alms giving, wouldn’t it be a merciful gift to fast from the bullying sin of silence?