The Art of Shutting Up

Have you ever noticed how intensely people try to fix you or your problems when you are suffering, and how that truly is the last thing you could want in that moment? I have begun to notice how much my friends speak as though they know how to fix my problems, and how abundant their words are when I reveal my struggles to them. Ok, I have begun to notice how much I try to fix problems and how abundant my words are when others are in need. And as I have reflected on my consoling techniques lately, I have begun to believe that shutting up in others’ times of need is a rare and desperately needed art form, and those who are best at it are those who have spent long journeys on earth, that is, the older people around me.

I had never noticed how much my grandma (Granny, as she is affectionately called) listened to me until I stopped talking so much. Over the years my grandparents have always been there for me, supporting and encouraging me with tough truth and generous grace at all the right times. But in the past couple of years I have gained an unquenchable interest in the lives they have lived, so I decided to talk less about myself and ask more questions. The strangest thing always seemed to happen though: the conversation was always directed back to me and my life, and I always ended up spilling my guts to my grandparents.

My Granny is an expert at avoiding the spotlight and turning it to you, not just because she is unassuming and doesn’t like the attention, but because she genuinely wants to know about you and your life. And I’ve noticed an expression on her face whenever she does this, and especially when I am speaking of the trials of life. Whether I am speaking of the chaos of my grad school/ministry/wedding planning life, or sharing about struggles with friends and family, my Granny always ends up with a wry smile creeping across her face and a chuckle in response to the struggles I share. Then a simple phrase of advise or a relevant story is shared, and another question is asked. It is easy for younger people to understand this as a communication of misunderstanding and dismissal, but I have come to see it as exactly the opposite. I think my Granny (and older generations in general) understand me more than my closest friends, and offer the best gift they can in times of need.

My experience is that, in general, older people give advice in smaller doses than do my younger companions. And I am growing more and more sure that older people speak less when giving advice not because they have less to say, but because they are convinced that any given person cannot truly learn something without experiencing it. They know that their words are limited in power, though not without worth, and that the experience of whatever you’re walking through will render infinitely more knowledge and perspective than any answers they can give. They should know, they’ve almost undoubtedly walked through the same struggle at some point in their lives.

I believe their vision is more focused as well, as a result of their time on earth and the experiences they have lived through. They usually don’t try to fix you or tell you the solution to the problem, but see past the situation, addressing how you handle or approach the struggle. After all their years of experience, they seem to be less concerned with fixing you or your problems, and are more concerned with the content of your character. Alongside this deeper concern about who you are, they also offer you the most beautiful strength they can in the middle of your hurt: their presence and love. They do not attempt to solve your problems for you (because they know they couldn’t with their words alone), but older generations seem to always be there as you walk through the toughest parts of life. They don’t pretend to know the answers, but they do know how to be present with you as you trip your way through your journey on earth.

My Granny’s smile is one that communicates a love that cannot be lost by my mistakes, and an understanding that compels her to avoid efforts to fix me, keeping her by my side, always. What if us yungins stopped trying to fix each other’s problems with long-winded advice, and instead learned the art of shutting up, walking together and experiencing life side by side, speaking only when necessary? You can tell someone what a skinned knee feels like, but until flesh is broken they will never truly know or understand that experience. And in those moments of pain, I know I don’t want to be on the other end of a phone call telling you what to do, but next to you, with you, near you. I want to learn from the most steadfast examples of human love in my life, my older family, and speak less, loving and laughing with my friends more.

The older people in your life understand you more than you think, and care more about you than you realized.

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