Left Unsaid

There are some things left unsaid. They have to be.

There’s a quote that high school seniors love to use in their yearbooks, that high school graduates have taken to using in their inspirational memes. “Dance like nobody’s watching, love like you’ve never been hurt, sing like no one’s listening, and live like it’s heaven on earth.” The idea is nice, to be sure. Romantic, empowering, life-affirming. But it’s also not viable. It’s not viable for the same reason why “live everyday like it’s your last” is an abstract (and absurd) philosophy rather than a realistic blueprint for daily living. After all, we don’t exist in a vacuum. “We’re living in a society. We’re supposed to act in a civilized way.”* We have societal duties, responsibilities.

*Wise words from a wise man.

I’ve discovered this past month that social mores are never more manifestly apparent than during a period of transition (say, a move to the other side of the world). Perhaps it’s the inherent contradiction. What seems a perfect opportunity to cut to the chase given the blank slate instead becomes a stark reminder of the game we have to play in existing as part of this world. I want desperately to ask my new colleagues outright about the assholes in the department. To ask my panel what they really thought of my interview months ago. But as honest and straightforward as I fashion myself, there are consequences to consider, and thus, boundaries to mind. Maybe I get my answers in due time. Maybe I never do.

I admit that I felt a tremendous urge to impart memorable words to those I left behind in Japan. I suppose it’s the theatrical side of me, growing up in Los Angeles. Regardless, I certainly considered offering unsolicited advice to those who have been a part of my life over the past two to three years and beyond. Perhaps in my more drunken moments, I even started to do so. I itched to tell my supervisor about the work environment he had fostered, I racked through my brain for the right words with which to relate counsel to colleagues, I began a letter – in my mind – for the research fellows who were to join the institute I was leaving.

But despite the temptation, I did not end up doing any of these things, for any number of reasons. It’s undeniably arrogant for starters. For me to impose my perspective on someone else’s experience, to presume that the would-be recipient was not already aware of their own traits, to overlook the possibility that they too might have thoughts about me, my persona, my very essence that they were holding back out of common courtesy. But more than arrogance, that I did not feel comfortable enough to share my thoughts up until that point with these individuals reveals much about the nature of our relationship as it had existed.

I had a conversation before I left with a friend about my mixed feelings toward giving advice to a mutual acquaintance. And he asked, “Why not? You’re leaving anyway.” It’s not that simple. Leaving a place, leaving people behind – it’s not an excuse to forgo social obligation and responsibility, to essentially live like there is no tomorrow. My departure might have been a necessary condition for an airing of laundry (clean and dirty, positive and negative), but it is not in itself not a sufficient one. Yes, in a few rare cases, I did have heart-to-hearts. But the foundation for those conversations, for those memorable words, had been meticulously laid out – on both sides – over the course of those relationships.

Still, I would be remiss to suggest that there were no words left unsaid even in those instances. The game is prevalent even in the most intimate of relationships. Because ultimately in life, there are some things that don’t need to be said, or shouldn’t be said, or haven’t gestated enough to be said properly. Restraint in these instances is not a matter of cowardice, but the reverse, and linked to having a measure of basic decency as a human being. There are boundaries to mind, a result of timing, or circumstance, or consequence. There always will be.

So some things are left unsaid. They have to be. At least for now, and perhaps even for ever. But that’s the burden of living with a tomorrow. That’s the burden of living when someone is watching, listening, responding.


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