By DR. JAMES SCLATER
Less Is More
Lately the manner in which each day manifests itself is a very fluid situation; good and bad often follow in rapid succession and vice versa. My wife has been seriously ill for about three years. After several surgeries and hospital stays and countless visits to the treatment center, she fights on courageously. We cherish the good days and endure the bad ones. Learning to live in the moment has been a freeing and necessary way to deal with the roller-coaster ride that is a grave illness. We treasure all our time together, good and bad. She shows me what it is to persevere.
You know the day is not going well for her when she asks you not to speak to her; she asks that you just sit in the room with her and be a silent presence. At a time such as this, words for her are overrated and often superfluous. Silence, which sometimes can be a powerful weapon of punishment and intimidation, is now simply a demonstration of love. It’s power is in what is unsaid, much akin to the meaningful silences in a musical composition which give previous bars a moment to be savored and understood, a time to let the sounds define themselves into an understanding that indeed cannot be put into words.
At this point in the patient/loving-caregiver dynamic, one runs out of ways to express verbally meaningful thoughts. One wishes to say something that will make it right, make it better, but then reality sets in. The best things are the simplest expressions of love—“Can I get you some juice? Are you comfortable? Buddy (our cat) has been very attentive today; he loves you very much.” Or simply saying nothing.
Maybe we just aren’t made to respond to the flowery stuff in this type of situation. Maybe deep down in our DNA is a part of us that covets simplicity, truths uttered with no pretense, just statements and questions that demonstrate care and concern, humor and empathy. After almost fifty years of marriage, the silences are often the spaces in which the deepest communications are achieved. Certainly this is truer now than ever before. When one feels so badly, it is really enough to know of the presence of the one you love. To see and to touch is to know those elemental truths that take a lifetime together to bloom and ripen.
Years ago I witnessed an acceptance speech by Sir Laurence Olivier at an OSCAR awards ceremony; he was receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy. I’ve always assumed that the speech he made was impromptu, mostly, I guess, because I wished to believe that a consummate actor such as Sir Larry would be able to pull it off. Not only was it one of the most beautifully crafted collections of words I ever heard uttered, it was spoken so masterfully that everyone in the hall seemed stunned. It’s beauty seemed even more intense by the aura of his greatness as an actor, but it was hardly just another virtuoso performance. It was a fleeting moment that captured the essence of the beauty and power of the spoken word.
Sometimes as I stand by the bedside of my wife I imagine sharing my concerns and care for her in an Olivieresque flourish of words. I would wish to calm her fears and anxieties with an outpouring of verbal beauty. Alas, my dreams of channeling LO are both useless and needless. Many times all that is needed is simple silence. No need to impress with a soliloquy about my love for her. Here silence often trumps everything else; real eloquence is often achieved by saying little or nothing. She bids me to respect the quiet and simply be present and is nourished by this gesture. There is no need to gild the lily.
She probably knows what I have yet to master—that the things that really matter are things that cannot easily be put into words, and, in many cases, don’t need to be. She feels the love that surrounds her and sometimes chooses to relish it in quiet. A hand held in the quiet of the day is its own form of eloquence, an impromptu act that says all that needs to be said with no fanfare.
It’s the same basic principle we learn in many of life’s endeavors—less is more. Less talk, more action. If a picture conjures up a thousand words, then surely a touch or smile is worth at least that much. The Shakers had it right when they sang “…Tis the gift to be simple.”
Dr. James Sclater is a composer and a retired Professor of Music at MS College. He is married to the former Ann Judy Davis of Columbia. They are residents of Clinton and they attend Fondren Presbyterian Church in Jackson