Nothing to say - and that's a blessing

by Brian Harper

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Every two months, I am tasked with writing a Young Voices column for the publication you are currently reading. The idea is to offer a youthful perspective on spirituality's role in the life of someone from Generation Y.

This is only my second Young Voices column, and I have nothing to say.

It is not as though I am without topics that would be compelling enough to cover. Experimenting with meditation. Trying to make time to pray amid other commitments. An appropriate Catholic response to gun violence, global warming and a host of other ills impacting our country and world.

Whenever I think about writing these pieces, my mind quickly fills with a cacophony of disjointed phrases and directions such a column could go. The notion of saying anything of merit becomes so overwhelming that there is little more I can do than rewatch the video of dogs whose owners taught them to talk.

One of the reasons I find the struggle to express myself so irritating is that it feels so uncommon.

While writing a column for my college newspaper, I developed the obnoxious habit of forming swift, knee-jerk opinions about anything and everything. Lady Gaga is pure spectacle. The president is a pushover. Hi-C should do more to market its fruit snacks.

Many half-baked thoughts about half-baked subjects hit the press. Occasionally, I remembered I generally had no idea what I was talking about.

After graduating, I moved to Peru to work with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. This was a positive development for several reasons, not least of which was having the opportunity to teach a group of incredible teenagers and redirect my attention away from myself several hours each day.

It was also nice to have some distance from the kinds of social and political events upon which I used to comment. I needed to go out of my way to access a computer, which made it less likely I would rashly plaster something ill-informed across the Web.

There is no question I still thought out loud with messy results. The difference was on a number of fronts.

For one, my avenue for expression involved pancakes and games of "Settlers of Catan" with my volunteer community. If I said something that got me into hot water, at least it was not on the Internet for everyone to read. My community mates and I created an open yet respectful atmosphere in which we could hash out ideas without publicizing the talk with a hashtag. I had been and still am fortunate to have these kinds of relationships in the United States, but the relative absence of viral interchanges in Peru made face-to-face communication more conspicuous.

The slower pace of life in Peru also stood in stark contrast to North American society's rapid-fire rushing from one item to the next. It meant we could sit with and return to our conversations in a way that, at least for me, seemed largely unfamiliar. I am not suggesting we or our exchanges were inherently deeper than those of our brethren to the north. Our setting simply afforded us more time and luxury to dig into our dialogues.

Finally, chats with Peruvian friends were in Spanish. Because el español is not my native language, I had to put more consideration into what I said before opening my mouth. Maybe it was inconvenient, but I grew to appreciate the thoughtfulness that came with the delay.

I have since returned to the United States. Though transitioning back to North American life has by no means been a speedy process, it was easy to promptly fall back into old habits. I have a smartphone, check BuzzFeed and luv 2 abbreviate sentences.

Most of us have probably read one of the many essays lamenting the extent to which instant access to information is dumbing down our discourse and chopping away at our attention spans.

"The bubble [of more] is being enabled by an unholy alliance between three powerful trends: smart phones, social media, and extreme consumerism," wrote Greg McKeown for Harvard Business Review. "The result is not just information overload, but opinion overload."

"[The data stream] pours into our lives a rising tide of words, facts, jokes, GIFS, gossip and commentary that threatens to drown us," wrote Karl Taro Greenfeld in The New York Times.

There are countless examples of writers deftly laying out this problem, so much so that I do not really have anything to add.

Which is the point. Sometimes it is all right to say nothing, to not retweet the photo of John Boehner crying, share the video of talking dogs or even render judgment on a story of real significance.

I am not talking about the cowardly quiet Elie Wiesel and Desmond Tutu indicate as enabling oppression. As T.S. Eliot said, "There are some things about which nothing can be said and before which we dare not keep silent."

And that, perhaps, is our challenge: to navigate the lines between that which truly calls for our appraisal and that which does not.

It is not that every word we speak needs to be profound. I am all for frivolity and weepy John Boehner memes.

But when saying, tweeting or posting something becomes our impulse, when keeping up with feeds -- whether of the Buzz or Twitter variety -- is so compulsive it is uncontrollable, it might be time to step back, let others do the talking and allow the noise in our own minds to die down.

Maybe I am advocating for something after all: balance. As a wonderful writer named Tim Kreider articulated, "It's hard to find anything to say about life without immersing yourself in the world, but it's also just about impossible to figure out what it might be, or how best to say it, without getting the hell out of it again."

Or as someone else demonstrated, sometimes the best thing to do after preaching a sermon is to escape up the mountain for some quiet time.

[Brian Harper is a writer, musician and community outreach coordinator for a small business. His work is available at]

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