Last Word: The Silent Treatment

Sometimes Words Never Come

For at least three hundred hours this past summer, I practiced what not to say. Most people who have completed a unit of clinical pastoral education (CPE), a standardized training program in hospital chaplaincy, describe their experience as a lesson in listening—often silently. Silence is easy in theory but often difficult in practice. We know we should let others tell their stories, but we often feel a strong urge to interrupt someone else’s story with a similar story of our own. By contrast, understanding what not to say is tough both in theory and in practice.

In August of this year, the poet Gregory Orr wrote in the New York Times about losing his faith as a child. He didn’t stop believing because his younger brother died after Orr accidently shot him while hunting. He lost his faith because “a well-meaning adult assured me that my dead brother was already, at that very moment, sitting down in heaven to feast with Jesus.” Orr continued, “How could I tell her that my brother was still near me, still horribly close to me—that every time I squeezed shut my eyes to keep out the world, I saw him lying lifeless at my feet?”

During my training at the hospital, I, too, occasionally found myself offering unhelpful words when I needed to say something to a patient. For example, after hearing countless patients and family members suggest that an illness might be a test or an ordeal that God wished a patient to endure, I caught myself saying, “You’ll be stronger having gone through this.” I’d instantly regret saying this, since most of my patients had no chance of gaining strength.

Similarly, a day didn’t pass without my hearing a patient’s illness or pain described as “God’s will.” I sometimes uttered that phrase myself. At other times, I bristled at it. I wish that more of my encounters unfolded like those in Stephen Dunn’s poem “A Coldness”: “And I wished his wife / would say A shame / instead of God’s will. Or if God / had such a will, Shame on Him.”

Another expression one too often hears at hospitals: “Everything happens for a reason.” Patients who were offered this bit of cheap wisdom would often reply by asking what the reason could be for a motor vehicle accident or the diabetes that had taken one of their limbs. “Surely God is great, and we do not know him,” Elihu says in the Book of Job. “Can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds, the thunderings of his pavilion?”

Instead of trafficking in speculations about why a person experiences pain or becomes ill, I found it far more helpful to ask the question “What now?” Reynolds Price wrote that after his cancer diagnosis “the kindest thing anyone could have done for me…would have been to look me square in the eye and say this clearly, ‘Reynolds Price is dead. Who will you be now?’” I once presented this passage from Price at a conference, and a participant who had survived breast cancer told me that, years ago, she playfully added “2.0” at the end of her name.

Nevertheless, I bet she sometimes heard the wrong words at the wrong times during her recovery. We’ve all said them, and we don’t do it because we fail to understand that these responses are theologically indefensible. We utter these words because they seem to be the only things that might give momentary comfort. Because these dubious phrases have become our default expression of consolation, we need God’s help to put them aside, to remain silent until we have something truer and therefore more helpful to say. Sometimes the words never come, and silence itself is enough. With or without words, chaplains are there to offer another loving presence, sometimes the only loving presence. As the Episcopal priest and poet Spencer Reece writes in a poem about his own experience in a hospital chaplaincy, “It is correct to love even at the wrong time.” 

Published in the January 9, 2015 issue: 

Winn Bassett has written for the Atlantic, the Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Guernica. He is now a graduate student at Yale Divinity School.

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