Learning to Shut Up

We ran to the walk-in closet, hiding from her little sister. The giggles were absorbed in part by the leather shoes and fancy dresses, but they reverberated on the mirrored doors.

Still laughing I said, “Ssshhhh! We need to shut up!”

Her eyes froze at me, blinking wide. The clothes around us hung heavy, concealing us in. As a first grader, what I had just said counted as a bad word, at least in her family. She proceeded to tell me not to say the “s-word” again, especially not in front of her mom. I deflated, feeling awful, and spent the rest of the play date wondering if my friend still thought I was a nice person.

My family wasn’t the type to swear either, and shut up wasn’t necessarily something I picked up from them. But I had never been told it was a bad word, and it didn’t carry any negative connotation in my innocent brain.

I know now that we tell kids not to say this phrase because it is often used with a tone of animosity, and it isn’t a healthy expression of frustration at a young age.

But as an adult, saying “shut up” is a nonchalant occurrence. It means little harm, but it has also transformed in its meaning.

“Shut up” is a firm direction. It could be used harshly, but it can also be the strength of a loving command, made out of good intentions. As much as I try to be forgiving and kind to myself (see this post), there are also days when I need to be firm and tell myself to shut up.

I first noticed my tendency to talk too much when I began giving tours for the admissions office in college. To be fair, it was my job to talk a lot. But there is a delicate balance between blabbering out of pride and offering knowledge while still listening to the other.

Gradually, I learned how to focus on asking the prospective students questions and also allow enough silence for them to bring up the questions they really wanted to hear about. I cultivated a posture of listening first and speaking second.

This was lost when I moved to Seattle and didn’t have as many friends around to talk to. I joined a women’s young adult bible study, and quickly found myself blabbering every week, gushing with the excitement of a child who learned something new and wants to tell everyone with in earshot about it.

It was exciting to feel like I knew something they didn’t, simply because they hadn’t heard the campus pastor preach about this already like all of my college friends. I had unique knowledge, and I wanted to share it.

The voice inside me began to nudge, pointing out my habit of talking too much and listening too little. I noticed that I was thinking of my response instead of actually listening, interrupting others, and dominating the conversation. It was humbling to step back and realize I needed to shut up.

Thankfully this group of young women are all patient and kind, still accepting of me and my pompous mouth. As I began to shut up and listen more, I was able to recognize the wisdom that they each had to share. We were all recently graduated, newly employed, and altogether trying to figure out adult life. But even with these similarities, we all have unique backgrounds and histories that add valuable input to the conversation.

Once I had opened myself up to really hearing someone else, I was humbled to find I still had a lot to learn.

This is equally important in our relationship with God. Oswald Chambers wrote that “We have to get rid of the idea that we understand ourselves,” because “Jesus cannot teach us anything until we quiet all our intellectual questions and get alone with him.”

By over-talking and over-thinking, I create the false illusion that I know everything and I can figure everything out on my own. By shutting up, I am reminded of my foolishness in comparison to the great wisdom of God.

The truth is, I can’t ever fully know or solve my problems on my own. I need the wisdom of patient friends with different experiences. I need the wisdom of a God who understands the bigger picture. I need to shut up and be still.

The firmness of the words themselves usher me back to a hushed closet, a place of reverence and awareness. Shutting up doesn’t have to be negative, it can be about firmly redirecting one’s attention to what matters. The posture of listening is never permanent, we must fall on our knees again and again to relearn how to hear with our whole hearts.

Blogging every day for the last month is the opposite of shutting up, and that is ok because there is also a time when we need to speak out. However, I am grateful as this month comes to an end that I can return to a place of listening.

Writing requires me to have one ear to the world, one ear to God, and a heart that is willing to pour itself out on the page. Each one is important, but they need to work in conjunction, not in competition.

 Do you ever tell yourself to shut up?
How do you practice talking less and listening more?