“i have lost millions and millions of words to fear. tell me that is not violence.” ~ Nayyirah Waheed
This is for those of us who keep our lives in our mouths, as Nayyirah describes:
“my whole life
ate my tongue.
ate my tongue.
ate my tongue.
i am so full of my tongue
you would think speaking is easy.
but it is not.”
This silence is shadow violence—it doesn’t leave marks, but it does leave us empty and endangered. In robbing us of our narrative, it robs us of our very identity.
This silence is criminal.
As humans, we become skillful at anything we repeatedly do; there is both reward and incredible danger on this two-way street, because when we become skillful at keeping things silent, we become ghosts and shadows of the beings we could be. When we become skillful at keeping secrets, we become terrible communicators about the things that do matter.
And when we do speak, listen to the conversations around us, read our own messages back, are we actually saying what we mean?
Most of the time, we are not, because if we truly spoke our minds, we might offend someone, hurt their ego, or cause a fallout. And worse, we could hurt our own ego, admit that we are in pain, lose something we are holding out for. Most of the time, we don’t say what we want to say because we are afraid, ashamed, or both, and so much of what violates us counts on our inability to say no.
Conversely, the lies we tell get us approval, regardless of misdirection and acceptance, regardless of perversion. The lies we tell keep us at bay from our vulnerabilities and extend our deviation—deviation from the very truths that make up forces of destabilization.
We remain mysterious as we lie our way through social norms and acceptance. We have our game face on, because society has trained us to acquiesce. And so, we trade in protest for survival.
Everything I’ve listed above, I’ve checked off in my own life. I have been both the enigma and the confidante; I have lied, and lied for others, to both please and protect, and in the most extreme forms of gaslighting (as my own therapist has pointed out), I have been silenced for all the wrong reasons.
I wonder if there is ever a good reason to silence someone—perhaps when malicious lies are manipulated to spread at just the right time, for maximum destruction. Slander, they call it. And being in the digital age, there is the advent of anonymous slander, something infinitely more damaging, because the violent injustice and harm it intentionally inflicts upon its targets becomes untraceable—silent—like the way they wanted us to be.
And the more I play back what I’ve silenced, the angrier I get, because for someone who chased after truths, I’ve compromised my life to be a puppet all along.
Sadly, the theme of being silenced is not uncommon. We each have our own experiences, but this shouldn’t be the thing that unites us. What if, instead, we could be united by stories of strength? By how we overcome damage, however relentless?
Writing from experience, I’ve always held back for fear of inflicting injury on others, even if the “injury” was as shallow as bruising someone’s sense of self-importance. I have prolonged relationships where I didn’t want to hurt the other person. I have engaged in and regretted sex because I didn’t have the strength to say no. I have cultivated a batch of bloodsuckers because with them I found easy acceptance, ears that listened without judgment, and glowing approval.
I have spent years in shallow manipulation and paid grave costs for it, so I decided to unmute myself today—because the pain that we harbour is actually incredibly common. And when it happens to us, we don’t recognize it as violence. That’s the criminal part.
I’m here to start a conversation, and, perhaps, a disquieting revolution. Because there is tremendous energy to be mined and harnessed from pain. Here are my notes from the battlefield:
1. Recognize that being silenced is a form of violence.
In the digital age, we are both filtered and opaque, and neither helps or encourages us to live a fulfilling, honest, or meaningful life. When we are afraid to speak, it’s because we’re afraid to say no to something or someone, and those are whose voices inhabit our mind—the powers that we submit to, the ones that keep us in check, and in the long run, the ones that keep us exploited.
The trauma is no different to being shackled, except the chains are not visible for the human eye to see. Chronic silence will break us down. Chronic silence is oppression.
2. Recognize that when we are afraid to speak, it is a kind of self-harm.
It doesn’t leave scars, but it does leave lives unlived. What we are forced to keep quiet and what we are afraid to say will always have power over us. The lives we have lost to fear force others to keep their lives quiet, too. When we push our silence onto others, we extend our conflict and confusion. We become increasingly misunderstood, because this internal violence sends out profoundly mixed signals, which only go on to produce an image of us that in and of itself helps us stray further from who we are.
When we are afraid to speak, we are the ones forsaking ourselves and destroying our own lives. Over time, and in the most extreme form, it becomes a kind of silent suicide.
3. No, it is not normal or healthy to have dark or toiling personal lives, regardless of our level of “success” or “accomplishments.”
When I was 14, I worked at a library, and my most favourite section to work in was the Dewey decimal classification 910-920. Geography was in 910, while 920 covered biographies. What I learned early on was that, oftentimes, successful people, as well as talented people, have all had to endure dark personal lives. Though they were never described as “unfulfilling,” they were simply referred to as “complicated” or “troubled,” because their achievements trumped all.
At an early age, I paralleled this bipolarity and accepted it as the norm, because “you can’t have everything,” and the more I aimed to accomplish, the less I cared about derailing my personal life, another common flaw among humanity. As a society, we knew less about the personal lives of others in the past, simply because prior to the digital age, private things were mostly kept private. However, digital society means information is being leaked, hacked, and manipulated. And “fake personal news” comes with real consequences.
4. Stop devoting extravagant reverence to what tramples things that really matter.
Sometimes, we silence the pain for those who are “important,” “accomplished,” or who have a public image or persona to maintain. Work is more important than we are, we are made to believe, because our culture as a whole puts emphasis on our resume over our relationships. But what becomes of us when we silence ourselves? When we silence the pain, we silence the damage, and we silence an incredibly common language, that perhaps, when spoken, might be easier for others to understand.
What if we made it our work to speak up and speak out? What if we allowed ourselves to relate to each other through pain, and through love?
5. Every lie emboldens the enemy.
Every lie emboldens those who tell us what our narrative is, because every lie is an indicator that their ego is more important than our truths. And if we don’t speak for ourselves, other people will speak for us—people who think they have an idea of who we are, but don’t, because we keep our truths silent, and can’t, because all we’ve fed them are lies, and those very lies become what they will build their narratives of us on.
In silence, I’ve emboldened the wrong people, and in running, the people in my life are continuing to be hurt by those who are speaking for me. When I am still, my loudest cry comes from not the pain or shame, but the violence of being mute.
6. The most interesting part of us is who we are, not what we hide.
It won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be easy, but when we actually begin to say what we mean, and when we start saying no, the margins of our world will start to change. As we reposition ourselves, we’ll no longer fit within the confines of what others need us to be, for their benefits and gains. As we arrest this violence, we start to become more of ourselves.
Consequently, certain people will disappear, and others will fade into the background, curiously watching but never participating, because when we are no longer afraid of injuring their ego, we cease to be useful. We start to become—maybe for the first time—truly interesting, and that can be intoxicating.
7. Words carry both power and energy.
Each set of words attracts a different group of people. When we start to unmute ourselves, we take power back from those who have been feeding on our silence, and that could make a lot of people angry and uneasy, but it’s the only way to live free. We will also start to attract new people, some of whom will finally be the right people, who will turn damage into love, poison into medicine, teach us about the lessons we’ve missed, and make us realize that we can heal from the voids we never tended to.
There’s a saying that we can only meet people as far as we have met ourselves. If we meet them with all our voids, we leave a lot of room for them to insert what we then use to define our own existence.
How can we ever be our own, if we are filled with the fragments, the violence, and the wars of others? To what do we anchor our safety when we don’t feel in control of ourselves? In this day and age, how many of us really have sovereignty over who we are?