This week I’m thrilled to have a guest post from Shawn Smucker. Shawn is a writer whom I deeply admire, someone who has an innate ability to describe encounters in a poignant, beautiful and impacting way. His latest book How to use a Runaway Truck Ramp is a brilliant example of this, and one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.
Shawn is keen on recognising the importance of silence, so I asked him to share his thoughts. Here he is.
The Megaphone Man Screaming in my Face
My friend’s mother (we’ll call her Beth) was on a train into London when a man standing in the aisle collapsed to the floor, motionless. If you’ve ever been on a train in England, you’ll probably remember one thing: no one says a word. The seats can be full, the aisles can be packed with people crammed up against each other, but no one talks.
So when the man collapsed at the other end of her train car, Beth peered down the aisle to see what was going to happen. And what happened was rather shocking.
No one went to his aid. No one motioned towards the man and asked their neighbor if they thought he was okay. In fact, one man sitting directly beside the man now lying in the aisle didn’t even stop reading his newspaper. It was as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. It was as if people always collapse on trains and everyone knew that if you just leave the person be, eventually they would stand back up, brush themselves off and get on with their day.
Beth stood and wove her way around the people standing in the aisle. The train kept clacking on down the track, shaking slightly from side to side. She arrived at where the man had fallen over and bent down beside him. He revived. When they arrived in London, Beth handed the man’s care over to a medic.
“Everyone just stood there,” she said, shaking her head. “No one was going to do anything for that poor man.”
When I lived in England, I also took the train into London almost everyday. It was a beautiful ride through green countryside. I always loved how the rolling hills gradually gave way to small towns, then highways, until finally the tide of the city surrounded us and the train eased into the station.
As much as I enjoyed those train rides, there was one particular section of the London Underground that I wasn’t too keen on. The reason is that on the District Line somewhere around Earl’s Court, a strange man often showed up on the train. He looked homeless: tattered shirt, torn trousers and sneakers that were falling apart, but that wasn’t what bothered me. His beard was straggly and his skin smudged black from the tube smoke, but that wasn’t it either. He carried a megaphone and multiple handmade signs under his arm.
He stood quietly as the train stopped, but as soon as it pulled away he got out his megaphone and began shouting in people’s faces. He set up his signs where everyone could see them and went from person to person, challenging their religious identity. Most people reacted in one of two ways.
Those who rode that particular section of train often sat there and tried to ignore him. They were familiar with the way he operated and didn’t want to draw undue attention to themselves or engage him in any way. But those who were new to this man were shocked. How could someone so blatantly violate everyone’s sense of personal space? How could someone say such mean things to strangers?
One day this man aimed his megaphone at a young Asian lady. The poor girl looked so frightened and alarmed, and her response led me to believe she didn’t speak English, or at least not well. One question etched itself on to her face: Why was this strange man shouting at me?
But the rest of us just looked away. We didn’t want to draw the man’s attention. All of us, that is, except one middle-aged woman.
I can still picture her. She stood up, marched over to that man, and got right in his face. She raised her index finger and pointed it at him.
“How dare you talk to this young woman that way? How dare you frighten this poor child? Now you take your little megaphone and you go somewhere else!”
He raised his megaphone as if to shout at her, but she pushed it back down to his side.
“I’ll have none of that!” she shouted. “Now be on your way.”
And would you believe it? The man walked to the other end of the car, sat down, and didn’t say another word.
Shouting can be immensely effective. After all, Beth’s movement to the side of the fallen man was, in a sense, a shout, and after she moved down the aisle beside the man, other people came to their aid. They just needed that first movement.
That first shout.
And look at the middle-aged woman on the train with the megaphone man: a few well-timed shouts was all it took to shut him down, to take the wind out of his sails, to make him second-guess the way he treated people.
But shouts don’t always work. After all, those of us who were familiar with that shouting man and his megaphone had tuned him out long ago.
If all you’re doing is shouting, guess what? No one is listening anymore. If the noise you create is always criticism and put-down and in-your-face shouting, your audience is shrinking, no matter what the numbers are saying. And if you want to maintain and increase your platform, you’ll have to figure out way to shout louder and louder.
Eventually, your followers will be following you because you shout, and not at all because of what you’re saying.
We all want to disrupt what we see as evil in the world. We want to fight injustice, free captives and lead people to truth. But we’ve swallowed the culture’s lie that the only way to do this is to shout, louder and louder and louder. In reality, the most effective way to bring about change is to incorporate silence into our platform.
What is silence?
Silence is being quiet, sure, but silence is also mercy. Kindness. Encouragement.
Take a break from all the shouting. Your whispers will carry further.