A Time to Be Silent


I haven’t been able to write an essay for a while. I could call it an extended case of writer’s block, except that doesn’t explain very much. Who knows what blocks a writer? I could say I ran out of things to say, except that isn’t true. Just ask the classes I teach; they endure seventy-five minutes of verbiage twice a week. I can blame my lapse on deciding to work two jobs. I now teach part-time for another college, in an effort to earn more money, but, at the same time, still find time to work on a novel. My lapse in blogging, I think, has to do with other things.

To a large degree, my silence is the result of a lesson I learned years ago, while training to be a hospital chaplain. When you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything at all. One evening, visiting a patient dying from liver cancer, I simply sat beside his bed and together we watched a football game on television. Bill was nearing death; his skin was yellow and felt like paper. But I didn’t try to say something profound, because I literally had no words that felt equal to the occasion. Instead, we rooted for the Redskins to beat the Cowboys and then I said goodnight. Later, after his funeral, his daughter told me that was the evening he made his peace with God, while sitting in the company of a friend. My presence was enough; presence is often better than words.

After that, I never felt compelled to say something, even when people thought I should. I remember visiting a parishioner whose husband burned to death in the crash of a small plane. I walked into her house and sat on a couch, watching neighbors come and go, all offering condolences and assurances, affirming his place in God’s hands and God’s plans. Several hours later, after everyone was finally gone, Anne walked over and sat beside me. “Thanks for not saying anything, because there’s nothing you can say. All their words seemed fake, and they actually hurt, because I thought I was supposed to believe them.”

Anne affirmed the lesson I learned from Bill, and, ever since, I’ve tried to obey that simple truth. As the author of Ecclesiastes puts it, there’s a time to talk and a time to keep your mouth shut, and the past six months have been the latter. I reached a point where I didn’t know what to say and complied.

As a minister, required to preach a sermon every Sunday, I couldn’t always afford the luxury of silence. People thought preaching a sermon was about the only real work I did for a week. But I don’t have to be compulsively verbal anymore. Nobody is going to threaten my paycheck if I don’t blog on a weekly basis, and my audience is small.

The reality is that I ran out of words. I reached a point, faced with the greed, violence, intolerance, lack of compassion, and fake religion that marks America, and the larger world, that I was literally speechless. I knew if I tried to say something I’d sound angry and whiny, or preachy and self-righteous, so I decided to say nothing at all.

Of course, saying nothing by not publishing a blog post is not the same as being present with someone in their discomfort, confusion, grief, or loneliness. I’m not sitting on your couch. I’m not bedside in a hospital room in an unspoken bond of companionship. In this disembodied medium, words are the only way I can be present, which is why I felt the urge to finally write something again.

If you don’t feel at home in the land you call home, I’m with you. I feel the same way. I am continually mystified by the way money is made more important than people, or the worth of people is measured by money. I’m disheartened by the routine expressions of contempt for the poor, and hostility toward migrants, and disdain for those whose only fault is being different from ourselves. How is it possible for Americans to be more concerned about the right to own a gun than with whether someone lacks decent health care and a shelter over their head? Why do we fight so many wars and look for wars to fight? How can a nation of people who pride themselves on being religious be so oblivious to the will of God?

I live in a place whose values do not match my own, and perhaps you’re like me. If so, you’re not alone, which is important to know. Hang in there; keep the faith, and I will, too.

About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

6 Responses to “A Time to Be Silent”

  1. Sometimes “silence” is the best teacher…….then it leaves us open to hearing only HIM. Your story today reminds me of something I just read the other night….a good reminder for us all. God did not create evil (greed, contempt, hostility)…Evil is the “absence” of God…and I must say that in using this word “God”…I always recognize it’s just a word that humans have developed to address the totally unexplainable, unmeasurable magnificence of HIM…keep writing – I always find it though provoking……….Kate

  2. Well done Bucky. I have to agree about the silence and I found that out this last week visiting my son in a nursing home, whose speech is very fragmented and has difficulty putting thought into words, so I found myself just sitting by his side and saying nothing but it did not matter as I was there with him, and funny for me who likes to talk a lot, I was comfortable and so was he. So once more Than You and God bless….

  3. It’s good to read your words again. These thoughts strike a chord with me. Thanks.

  4. Bucky, silence is such a balm. Years ago while working in France at a community do l’arche I kept strong with the gift of silence. One night a week I stayed at the Carmelite Ahhhh.

  5. Tawana Valentine Reply July 24, 2015 at 3:34 pm

    This blog was quite timely for me, today, 7/24/2015! Thanks, Bucky! I would love to be sitting in one of your classes right now discussing the current issues of America and you sharing you perspective. Miss your perspective, not the essay writing, though (insert laugh here)! Silence is a luxury that I rarely get to enjoy!

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