I’m glad I didn’t say that.
Stepping onto the second floor of my high school’s foreign language building, I looked out of the water-streaked window to see the students outside frantically running for cover. Whoever loves Bay Area weather must like unpredictable downpours. Seven minutes prior, I had been sitting in the library having lunch with a friend who was having a particularly bad day. I had listened to her rant, nodding and attempting to maintain eye contact while simultaneously shoveling spoonfuls of fried rice into my mouth. Unsure of when she would pause her story to get my response, I brainstormed a few options.
“How could he have been so rude?” No, that part had ended a while ago; it would sound like I hadn’t been paying attention.
“I’m sorry.” Cop out.
“Ugh, that’s so frustrating.” Duh, that’s not helpful.
“Let’s look at the bright side! At least it’s not raining today.” That was the worst one yet.
“Are you even listening?” I looked up midchew at my flustered friend, who was now eyeing me suspiciously.
“Yes, yes, Ms. M was giving you crap about being late.”
“She’s so annoying.”
Just then, the bell rang. My friend moved on to talking about the guy that smelled like wet farts whom Ms. M had made her sit next to as I snapped my food container shut. We parted ways with the usual, “Anyway, I’ll talk to you later” as a light sprinkle began to fall.
As I sat in my Spanish class, a flood of moments when I held myself back from saying something came to mind. There were too many to count. The reasons for each of those moments, though, were surprisingly dissimilar.
This instance regarding the rain had been a silly example, but the unspoken remark still carried weight. My friend could have interpreted it as invalidating of the negative things she had dealt with that day; I might have felt bad for offering such a dismissive reply; and anyway, if the “bright side” was the simple fact that it wasn’t raining, it sure wasn’t bright anymore.
Other times, I might be relieved I didn’t blurt the first thing that came to mind because holding it in helped me avoid embarrassment — or maybe I became aware of the other person’s situation afterward and was happy I had not spoken out of line.
On the other hand, there are things that I have decided against saying that I wish I had said. I might have come up with a feeble excuse not to voice something in my mind and regretted it afterward. Reflecting on these situations, I’ve realized that there are reasons beyond saving face that warrant keeping my mouth shut.
The moral of the story, though, is that there is a lot of power in the things unsaid. A single sentence that could have been left unspoken can ruin a relationship, but so can a lack of communication. Holding back on verbalizing a feeling can be a good choice in certain situations and a bad one in others. In the end, we have a choice with every word we let out, and that choice is a process I have come to appreciate as an underratedly complicated one.
Knowing when to speak and what to say is a skill — one that I am still attempting to master. It balances the importance behind the sentiment “think before you speak” and the importance of self-reflection regarding the things I was not brave enough to say.
I might sound like an overthinker: I am. I can admit to being the person who repeatedly replays past conversations, wondering what I could have done differently. But my tendency to do so ultimately comes from a desire to discover the truth in my experiences, as well as to appreciate the beauty in them. There is humor in the frustration of not having been ready with a scathing response to my parents nagging and profound relief in having held back from saying something that could have caused pain. My story is not only shaped by spoken conversations or dramatic monologues, but also by my innermost thoughts and the millions of things that tumble through my mind and never leave my mouth.
So, perhaps to find some comfort in the commonality of this experience, or perhaps to explain why I did not speak up when I should have, or even to avoid having to directly face those I still have a chance to talk to, I take to another outlet by which I can express the things I did not say. Writing allows me to map out all of the different possible outcomes if I had said something I hadn’t.
Would my relationship to that person be the same as it is now? Would my being honest with them have changed anything? Would my life look the same as it currently does? No matter how I unpack that alternate world, I will never truly know the answers to those questions, because for better or for worse, I didn’t say it.