I was in the passenger seat, and my friend was behind the wheel. At least, I wanted him to be my friend, if I could manage it. He was new on my dorm at university, and I was keen to be on good terms if at all possible. The trip was long enough for good conversations, but they weren’t happening the way I expected. My best questions were being answered with a few short words, and my most interesting conversational topics were slipping away like so many wet bars of soap. The trip had hardly begun and I was already struggling for something to say. Silence grew in the space between words. Suddenly, an inspiration: I saw a funeral home.
It wasn’t much, but I was desperate. I latched on: “Don’t think I’d want to work in one of them,” I said, feeling like I must be hitting on a universal sentiment, finally finding some common ground to share with this man who seemed to have no interest in anything I mentioned.
“Oh really? Why not?”
I hadn’t expected that. Why not? It’s a funeral home, it’s death and grieving, coffins that are full and bodies that are empty. Why not? “I—I just don’t think I’d like being around death all the time, I guess.”
How come? Wasn’t that obvious? But at least we had a conversation going. I stumbled around for more words to communicate that basically the whole idea made me feel uncomfortable. Honestly, the whole conversation made me feel uncomfortable, but at least it was a conversation, and I wasn’t about to be picky now. I kept talking. The more I talked, the more ways I found to eloquently express why a job at the funeral home was clearly undesirable. I had already committed myself to this position, so I had to defend it. I could tell that my case was compelling, too, because he was listening closely. Finally, my (potential) friend responded:
“My family owns a funeral home, and after college I’m going back to work there. One of these days I’ll be the director.”
The rest of the journey was long, and quiet. I learned a few things from the discomfort of it, though. I learned that empty silence can be better than words thrown out just for the sake of filling it. I learned that some of my own opinions are really nothing more than thoughtless reflexes and gut feelings, not the carefully reasoned logical conclusions I assume them to be. And on reflection, I learned that I was wrong to disparage such an important profession, a profession that purposefully chooses the difficult work of bringing honour and comfort in the face of death. If I ever have the chance to finish that conversation properly, I won’t say nearly as much. “Thank you” could be enough, not only for the good work he’s doing (I assume) at his family business, but also for helping me learn that it’s better not to speak at all than to speak carelessly.
In Proverbs 21:23, Solomon said that “The one who guards his mouth and tongue keeps himself out of trouble.”
He was right.