What Can I Not Say?

Amazing art by Lisa Graham. Click image to visit her on Etsy.
Amazing art by Lisa Graham. Click image to visit her on Etsy.

Good morning, friends. Maybe you’ve noticed it’s been pretty quiet around here lately. Trust me, it’s not because it’s quiet in my brain or boring in my life. Quite the opposite. Hopefully, I can update you soon.

In the meantime, something I read today from Parker Palmer really resonated with me. The book is called, Let Your Life Speak. Which is kind of the opposite of how I tend to communicate truths that resonate with me. My approach is more, Let Your Mouth Spout.

I did that the other day when a depressed friend came by for a visit. She was in that place of internal exhaustion, where you wake up and realize you have nothing to give and you want the world to go away.

I gave her some great advice and shared spiritual tidbits that seemed inspiring to me. I was gratified when she told me, “I wish I had a tape recorder.”

It wasn’t until hours later that I realized I missed the real opportunity—to listen with kindness and care. To give her space and time to arrive at her own wisdom. To help her soften around her pain instead of suggesting it’s wrong to feel this way.

In Let Your Life Speak, Palmer writes about his own struggle with depression. “Twice in my forties I spent endless months in the snake pit of the soul,” he explains. “Hour by hour, day by day, I wrestled with the desire to die . . . I could feel nothing except the burden of my own life and the exhaustion, the apparent futility, of trying to sustain it.

“I understand why some depressed people kill themselves: they need the rest.”

Naturally, lots of people tried to help Palmer. To cheer him up. To remind him how valuable his life was. To suggest ways to break out of his funk. And not surprisingly, none of it helped much.

He writes:

One of the hardest things we must do sometimes is to be present to another person’s pain without trying to “fix” it, to simply stand respectfully at the edge of that person’s mystery and misery. Standing there, we feel useless and powerless, which is exactly how a depressed person feels—and our unconscious need is to reassure ourselves that we are not like the sad soul before us.

In an effort to avoid those feelings, I give advice, which sets me, not you, free. If you take my advice, you may get well—and if you don’t get well, I did the best I could. If you fail to take my advice, there is nothing more I can do. Either way, I get relief by distancing myself from you, guilt free.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve done that, how easily I forget that sometimes the only thing more powerful than just the right words is just the right silence. The kind that bears with, not bears advice. The kind that inspires small, powerful acts of love.

“Blessedly,” Palmer writes, “there were several people, family and friends, who had the courage to stand with me in a simple and healing way. One of them was a friend named Bill who, having asked my permission to do so, stopped by my home every afternoon, sat me down in a chair, knelt in front of me, removed my shoes and socks, and for half an hour simply massaged my feet. He found the one place in my body where I could still experience feeling—and feel somewhat reconnected with the human race.

Bill rarely spoke a word.”

This seems like a good challenge for me next time I’m with a friend who aches: How can I honor the sacredness of her struggle? What can I do to show that I care? What can I not say?

Let’s hope it’s a lot.



Author: Heather Kopp at SoberBoots.com

Heather Kopp is an author and blogger who writes about the intersection of addiction and faith. Her memoir about her recovery, Sober Mercies, was published by Jericho, a new imprint of HBG (Hachette Book Group) in Spring 2013.

31 thoughts on “What Can I Not Say?”

  1. I remember reading, in a book, years ago, by a young Jewish woman, as she described Shiva.
    In the Jjewish faith, it is the tradition that follows death.
    I understand the word means seated and people come to pay their respects by visiting the house of the bereaved.
    The visitors do not speak to the one’s who have suffered the loss, rather they come in silence and sit down…to be present…to just “be”.
    She said that in that place the bereaved is allowed to express the full extent of their anguish ( no Sister Sally shushing anyone up here or no Brother an rolling his eye balls). As the bereaved have that place to express the fullness of their pain, it is the friends who give them a gift, your Presence…A reassurance I am here/
    Come and don’t speak… and you are “siitting Shivah” with them, give them the gift of Presence…I am here.
    Since I read that book, I have from time to time expressed to another, when they too, have experienced terrible losses ( and not just death) and need a “place”… a “friend” …that they can be safe with …and sob and make loud noises of many decibels or no noises at all…I tell them I am going to “sit Shiva” with them


  2. In the gift of femininity, we have a natural tendency to nurture and want to “make it all better”. Obviously, we can’t always do that. But our words can be helpful sometimes. If she said that she wished that she had a tape recorder, then your words were spoken well and I believe that she needed to hear them. OK, maybe not all of them and we can get carried away sometimes.

    In the beginning, I tried to “pep talk” my daughter out of her (gulp) very real depression and anxiety. I learned with a couple of good depression resources that I was way off. Encouragement as what she needs most from me ~ which by the way, is not easy when a person is miserable and sometimes mean.

    Using the Serenity prayer as a guide, I try to accept, with God’s grace, that I cannot change the way she feels. I cannot cure her depression.


  3. Heather thanks for the reinforcement of a powerful spiritual principle. Its in empathic silence healing often comes and with a fellowship of tears we search for healing. Rumi says “The wounds are where the light comes in.” Pax Christi.


  4. I am trying to do this very thing for a dear friend of mine whose husband committed suicide two days ago. The one thing I couldn’t stop myself from saying, though, is “this is not your fault.” Knowing her situation, I believe this is something she desperately needs to hear. But my goal is to just hold space with her.

    Thanks for this post.


  5. Makes me think of Job, in his worst times of trouble his friends came to him and they were MOST helpful in the first seven days, they did not say anything. I wish I had that wisdom sometimes.


  6. Reblogged this on club east: indianapolis and commented:
    Thoughtful post on Parker Palmer’s “Let Your Heart Speak” in which Heather Kopp touches on some self-revelatory points that hit home for me in a very unexpected way. Of course, Palmer’s highly engaging book is not official AA literature, so you’re not reading about it here, 🙂


  7. Do you have my house bugged?

    “Let my mouth spout . . .” So timely to hear this as I am about to meet with a woman whose burdens are heavy, and alas heavier by use and abuse of pills and wine – and whine.

    The image of “fixer” is also apt — I can’t fix her brokenness – God can and will, if HE is sought.


  8. Today I made another doctors visit with my severly depressed son. Your post and the excerpt from the book really hit me hard. I do an awful lot of talking ,trying to make him feel better. Now I want to try just listening.


  9. Wow. I’ve been on both sides of that black place and still couldn’t tell you what to do. Or not do. But God bless Bill. He gets it. Maybe I do too now. Thank you again.


    Liked by 1 person

  10. I used to be guilty of giving advice also. Thinking the advice I was giving was “great”. That was before I started going to Alanon. Now I just listen to what other people are going through. I admit it was a struggle in the beginning, not giving or receiving advice. I did not understand it, I was used to both. I realized I do not know what is best for someone else and they do not know what is best for me. Talking in a meeting helps me to feel better, knowing someone is listening and possibly getting something out of my pain is a great thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So glad to hear you mention Alanon. This is such a struggle for me, especially in the context of sponsoring. I’m sure it’s why we share our “experience, strength, and hope” instead of our advice. I agree too about talking in a meeting. No wonder we love them–no one is even allowed to give advice! Of course, solicited advice is different, and sometimes appropriate. But even then, sharing our own experience is so much better than telling someone what they should do. Appreciate your comment so much. H

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi Heather,

    Boy, am I a spouter and Palmer really nails it. By giving advice we feel better. My youngest daughter told me something similar not long ago, “Mom, just listen. I don’t need you to fix it.”

    Oh, duh!

    I also understand the depression. I have suffered from cyclical depressions since my teens. At first they lasted a few months, then 18 months, then a few years. The last cycle was 9 freaking years, and only the grace of God pulled me out of that pit.

    But, I do know this, I won’t survive another one. I don’t have the energy to fight it anymore. God willing there won’t be another one. I am working, hard, very hard to keep from following its pull. So far, so good.

    Smiles and blessings to you, me


    1. Nancy, I always appreciate the honesty of your comments. It panged me to hear you say you won’t survive another depression, but I think I understand. You echoed Palmer when he said people commit suicide because they’re just so exhausted and tired of trying to sustain their lives. I treasure you, friend. I’m so glad you’re alive today! Hugs and love, Heather


  12. “Come unto me all ye who are weary and heavy laden and I will five you rest”…….not advice, not things to do…..just his presence and listening ear. I’ve heard it said that the best thing about prayer is having someone that will listen. And it is not insignificant to consider who is listening.

    Thanks for this great reminder, Heather. What does the other need, not what do I need to give them.


  13. LOVE this post! Thanks for sharing all of that with us. I was with a friend yesterday and we were talking about the fact that so many of our friends are dealing with really hard things right now. This is such a great reminder that in most cases our friends don’t need us to do anything, they just need us to be…be with them and be for them. I will be intently listening and not talking. Thank you for this great reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

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