It still sticks in my mind as the single best--and hardest-to-follow--bit of advice my mother ever gave me:
You don’t have to tell everything you know.
Simple, maybe. But a revelation to me--an inquisitive, voluble child who considered a thought nonexistent until I’d said it aloud.
From my mother’s perspective, the advice had its practical applications. . . . Like maybe the next time she got a speeding ticket with me in the car, I wouldn’t announce it to my dad the minute he walked in the house.
But to me, her admonition seemed to straddle the thin moral line between telling a lie and withholding the truth, requiring a complex set of mental gymnastics to restrain my impulse to tell my truth.
It is only now that I realize her message was less about censorship than about self-control, self-knowledge, self-respect.
What she was saying was not just, “Bite your tongue when Aunt Dorothy strolls in wearing that wig that looks like a bird built a nest on her head.” It was not just good manners she was trying to promote. Or the good sense to keep my foot out of my mouth.
Her message was more--an invitation to cultivate a sort of inner life that, as a child, I could not yet conceive. And, as an adult, I still struggle to sustain.
I envy those folks who have mastered the kind of inner dialogue my mother envisioned--those thoughtful souls who ponder, resolve and quietly move on . . . without inviting the rest of us to witness the process inside their heads.
Indeed, there are some to whom this must come naturally. Like my thoughtful oldest daughter, who calibrates her words before she lets them flow. And my strong-willed little one, who never equivocates and needs no confirmation of her views.
But my middle one, like me, pops off without thinking, laying bare her insecurities in naked exhibitions of the workings of her mind. She embarrasses her friends with forthright questions, hurts feelings with her blunt remarks, drives us to distraction as she seeks validation of thoughts that burst free.
Sometimes her outspokenness charms and delights. Other times it grates and wears thin--like a faucet constantly running, that you cannot turn off.
So I pull her aside and try to explain, advising her as my mother did me, “You don’t have to tell everything you know.”
She starts to speak, but I shush her and ramble on.
“You can hold a thought inside your head,” I tell her, “and never say it aloud. And it still exists! It doesn’t matter if anybody else knows it . . . that’s not what makes it real. It’s your thought!”
She furrows her brow. And I plunge in again. . . .
“It’s like this: You don’t need to look in a mirror to know you exist. You know you’re here, even if you can’t see yourself. Well, your thoughts are the same . . . you don’t have to hear them for them to exist. It’s enough that you think them.”
She looks confused . . . and afraid to speak.
I open my mouth to explain some more, then think better of it. What’s popped into my head is that age-old question about a tree falling in the forest and no one being around to hear it and whether it still makes a sound. . . .
And I imagine what she would think of that, and decide this is one of those times that I don’t have to tell something I know.
So we both stand there silently, looking at each other, with thoughts unspoken.
To this day, I’m still no good at holding thoughts in my head, unshared.
Maybe that’s why I liked being married, having somebody there to share my day. Why I miss my therapist, who was paid to listen while I prattled on. Why I enjoy writing this column, mentally unburdening myself in print.
I like to have a sounding board. I need to say it, to write it, to hear someone respond. Is it quirk or character flaw? Immutable quality, or sign I’ve never sufficiently matured? I still don’t know.
As a child, I created a host of imaginary friends, who shared the triumphs and travails of my days. It was with them I worked out my problems, through them I figured out how I felt about issues large and small.
Over the years, real people stepped up to play that role. I dragged in sisters, my brother, co-workers and friends to help me navigate the maze of thoughts in my head. And I’ve tried to learn to rein myself in, to think rather than speak, to keep my own counsel silently.
But even alone, I find I’m still thinking out loud . . . talking to God, the dogs, my children as they sleep.
And in conversation with myself . . . telling everything I know.
* Sandy Banks’ column is published Mondays and Fridays. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.