– Westley, The Princess Bride
The world is not a perfect place. While that’s probably not any grand revelation to most people, I’ve noticed a tendency in American culture to act as though everything’s great. That is a lie that comes at a steep cost.
I lost a close friend in high school, not to death, but to anger and depression. We took the same walk to lunch every day, wandering across campus from our small, private school classrooms to the triple-purpose gym, cafeteria, and performance center.
“How are you doing?” I’d ask, trying to catch a glimpse of her wrist out of the corner of my eye.
“I’m fine” she replied.
I learned to interpret her answer by the tone of her voice and the tension in the pauses between words. Even when she confirmed what I had suspected about her self-harm, it was in low whispers and hypothetical terms. We both lay in the dark of her room, avoiding eye contact, keeping our voices low so her parents wouldn’t come in and find us still awake. We used metaphors and vague descriptions to talk about what we both knew by then was true.
A semester later, she couldn’t talk to me without hissing her words. She stood abruptly from the lunch table where she and our other friend always sat, apologized for her presence with a “you don’t need me here,” and stalked stiffly away. I didn’t know what I’d done, only that this was the culmination of months of distant behavior. When I asked what was wrong, it didn’t matter. It wasn’t important. It wasn’t a big deal. Her pain never had a voice, and it killed our friendship.
I wish I had been her advocate. I wish I had pressed more at the sensitive points I knew, digging to the problem so we could resolve it together. At least she might have known I cared. Maybe we could have bandaged our friendship the same way I helped bandage her bleeding hand after what I hoped was an accident involving a pen, a palm, and too much pressure. I cleaned up the blood and stood there in the yellow and grey girls’ bathroom, holding a paper towel over the wound. Of course, she said that was fine too. Maybe we were doomed anyway. I don’t know.
What I do know is that my silence came at a cost. So did hers. Issues, I’ve had to learn, are like a sort of festering emotional decay. Silence is the warm, moist environment in which they thrive. The thing is, problems rarely resolve themselves. There are people around us who are in pain – friends with eating disorders, roommates afraid of the political change, classmates questioning their self-worth, professors overwhelmed with demands, community members anxious about what the future might hold for them and their families. As much as our silence matters, our voices matter too.
Have difficult discussions. Root up what’s wrong. Face life together. Will you, years from now, look back and wonder what could have been different? Will you wonder when and how relationships disappeared? Will historians wonder why no one defended the oppressed?
I’d like to believe that a time comes when we cannot continue to be silent, but there is always a choice. If you are a victim of silence know, that you don’t have to be alone. There are people who will stand up around you in absolute, unconditional love. I’ve met them and they saved my life. If you have been silent, know that your actions have a cost. Speak out with the power, love and compassion that is so necessary in our world. That’s the only way our world will change.