I had a chance to say something this week that I've wanted to say to someone in my family for a long time. Before the weekend is over, I will tell the rest of my family the same thing and a journey which I started a few years ago will be over. It's hard to imagine how it will feel when it's done. I feel that surge of energy a marathoner gets when the balloon arch at the finish line finally comes into sight with about a half mile to go. There's nothing to gain from that sudden kick, but now that I'm so close to the end, I just want to be done.
I've rehearsed the conversation I had this week a thousand times. Though I have known I couldn't predict how it would go, it didn't go the way I expected it would. I prepare myself for the worst most of the time when I think there's the potential for conflict, and in this case, I had good reason to believe the worst would happen. It didn't. In fact, it was far better than I dared to imagine. Not only did I get to say something I've longed to say, I heard something said in return that everyone should have the opportunity to hear said by her own flesh and blood.
I've had one lingering question ever since, "Why did it take so long?" There is an answer to that question. The answer is found in several lifetimes of learned decency and silence that was thought to keep peace, values handed down by parents who were themselves taught to keep silences to avoid offense and shame. But at what cost?
I am a person who far too often holds her words. The pain of the last few steps of this journey is the awareness of all that I've missed out on because I didn't say what I felt deeply in my heart. I've been afraid I might offend. I've feared that I would be rejected and somehow that seemed reason enough to hold back deep convictions and strongly felt words that had the power to change things, and while I rejoice that those words have been spoken and have closed some of the space that separated, I regret that it took so long. I really regret that I allowed my parents' commitment to decency to hold sway over my own values and convictions.
Silence is the torrential rain that washes out the road that separates me from others. It keeps me inside the walls built with the bricks and mortar of my fear. The longer the silence is kept, the harder it is to traverse the way to another. The obstacles are harder to overcome. It becomes easier to stay apart and not take the journey to end the separation. I convince myself it's safer that way.
I've found myself wondering what's wrong with being offensive from time to time. It's a question that has to be asked if I'm going to challenge the assumptions that keep the silence intact. Recently I was reminded of two heated conversations I've had in my life that ultimately became life changing.
In one conversation, as a 23-year-old arrogant American, I proudly proclaimed the goodness of the United States' paternalistic military policies in South Korea to a group of Korean college students. To their credit, they didn't demonstrate outside my apartment throwing bottle bombs at riot police who retaliated with pepper gas, nor did they refuse to associate with me after that. They didn't even yell, "Yankee, go home," though I'm sure I deserved to be told that. Instead, they gently challenged me, and in the course of the conversation, I became deeply, painfully aware of my arrogance, of the ridiculousness of considering an 8000+ year old culture adolescent, in need of the gentle instruction and safekeeping of the great parent democracy I thought we had in the U.S. On a rare occasion, I opened my mouth to say what I thought and I offended good people with my misguided ideas, however well-intentioned they may have been. But they didn't leave me in my ignorance. They challenged me, I listened to them, and my life was changed for the better.
A similar conversation with my step-brother and his partner years later opened the door for me to accept myself. The words had to be said out loud, my fear and ignorance revealed, in order for me to find a way to truly hear what they understood from their own experiences. The offense caused is long forgotten, replaced instead with gratitude for the life-altering new awareness and understanding gained from engaging each other in that way.
For someone so quiet and afraid to say what she thinks, I've experienced a lot of transformation in the school of awkwardness and offense. I can't get back the years lost, and some of the distance that separates because of the secrets kept may never be closed, but I find hope in these final steps of a long marathon to end the silence that has separated me from people I love that the latter half of my life will be lived out of the realization that words not said cause more regret for me than words said out of honest conviction, however misguided they may be.