There are certainly times we should be silent, but other times we need to get out of our comfort zones and say something.
My preferred method of keeping the peace is silence. I’m horrified by public protests and confrontations. I resolutely refuse discussing controversial topics, and back away from black-or-white statements. I’ve convinced myself that I prefer nuance and subtlety, but really I’m just excusing my silence. Because what if someone doesn’t like what I say? What if someone thinks I’m unreasonable?
There is prudence in staying silent at times, but never speaking up about anything at all isn’t prudence — it’s fear.
There are plenty of injustices out there –- take your pick of any number of items currently in the news — and perhaps it’s time to make our voice heard on some of them. At a more personal level, it’s important from time to time that our friends, neighbors, and co-workers hear from us, even about small matter that are bothering us, something that doesn’t seem quite right, an issue that needs discussing. Hard conversations are a necessary part of life.
Taking time to think before blurting out a hasty opinion is a virtue, and sometimes if there is no beneficial outcome simply being quiet is the best course of action. For instance, if a family member wants to argue politics at Thanksgiving and has no intention of having a fruitful conversation, it’s best to not take the bait. Other times, though, it’s our duty to speak up. We never know who’s listening or what impact our words might have.
One of the sources of wisdom I’ve found helpful on this topic is St. Gregory the Great. Gregory was pope in the late 6th century and he was known as a pragmatic, thoughtful man. As a spiritual father, he considered it important to give practical advice for everyday concerns such as finding the proper balance between being too quick to speak up and never speaking up at all.
Here are a few of his tips from St. Gregory for how to know when it’s time to speak up …
Forget how you appear to others
I tend to remain silent because I don’t want to risk losing the respect of others. I don’t want to seem disagreeable or argumentative. The problem with this, Gregory says, is that it allows the imagination to take over. Because I didn’t actually say anything in real life, I think about what I should have said, and how it might have gone, and how I couldn’t actually say anything because of this reason or that. This can be avoided by simply speaking up at the appropriate time. We owe it to ourselves to speak the truth, to say what we need to say and not worry about how we appear to others.
Speak up when keeping it in causes emotional damage
It’s difficult not only to speak up for other people, but also for ourselves. Gregory says, “Often those who are overly silent, when they suffer some injustice, develop a greater pain because they do not speak about what they endure.” If I’m unsure or embarrassed, the last thing I want to do is talk about it, so I allow the injustice to continue. What happens, though, is that I continue to harbor that injustice and it causes a long-term emotional response. Speaking up is not only the right thing to do, it is also spiritually healthy.
Speak up when it will help others
Gregory says that, when we recognize an evil against another person but don’t speak up about it, we are like doctors who refuse to give medicine to a person who has been poisoned. I’m ashamed to admit it, but in the past I’ve stood by and watched others be treated unjustly and said nothing. I took the easy way out and justified it by assuming that everyone can defend themselves and I shouldn’t get involved. Sometimes, though, we really do need to get involved. When an evil is perpetrated against another person, they need all the support they can get. They may not be able to speak up themselves, either because of power dynamics, or being too upset, or lacking in self-confidence. They may think everyone is against them. That is, unless we speak up.
When not speaking up causes a loss of trust
Gregory says that those who keep silent risk implicating themselves in hidden vices. If we fail to protest against an injustice, we may seem to be agreeing with it. Or, at the least, we are part of the reason it is allowed to continue. For instance, I prefer to remain silent and fit in when someone tries to draw me into gossip about another person, even if I don’t actively participate, but I’ve realized that in doing so I’m still participating simply by saying nothing. Now, I make an effort to always say something positive about the person who is being gossiped about. It’s a simple habit, but it clearly shows that I do not participate in the injustice. Making clear where we stand is challenging, but if we don’t, people can make all sorts of assumptions about what we really think.
We live in a time when we’re bombarded by news of injustice, strongly-held opinions on controversial topics, and vicious online debates. We’re exposed to gossip and difficult personal conversations. It’s hard to know when to speak up. Gregory provides us some insight into how to decide when to make our voice heard.