19 Dramatic Irony

“Why Am I Talking?”  “Why Am I Not Talking?”

by Peter Gould


Across the years of teaching Inner Peace/Outer Peace, I’ve revised my personal understanding of what a  good mindfulness practice is. More and more, in addition to sitting meditation, mindfulness leads me to concepts like discretion, consideration (in all its definitions), reminding, and silence.

Can you think of a time when you knew something important that other people didn’t know? And, though it might have changed a situation, you chose not to divulge what you knew?

You remained silent.

I can think of a few examples in my own life.

In fact, I like to think about them. Thinking about these moments gives me a pleasant experience, a little thrill, of dramatic irony, even in my memory. Here is one:

One evening, after seven years of working to protest United States policy in Central America and garnering a thick FBI file along the way, I was standing on the stage of the fanciest theater in Honduras, having just done a physical comedy performance. I was accepting the congratulations of the American ambassador, who was a foot taller than me. And I thought, “You don’t know who I am, do you?” I wasn’t going to tell him.

Then there was the time that a tractor trailer load of confiscated, just-harvested marijuana never made it to the bonfire at the Greenfield, Massachusetts, sanitary landfill. The truck went missing, and everyone knew about that. So when my friend’s case made it to court, the missing truck became evidence that was never mentioned. And it weakened the prosecution’s case! Sometimes evidence turns out to be as effective when not discussed as it would be if it had been.  As I sat in the court and worked out all the logical positions of the various stakeholders, I could almost hear every one of them thinking, “Well, I’m not going to be the first person to mention this.”

But sometimes, in spite of our intention to be discreet, we run off verbally without thinking clearly of the consequence. A friend says, “Please don’t tell anyone. Can I trust you?” You go and gossip as soon as you have the chance. But before you do something like this, a moment of pure intentional mindfulness might remind you why the person who shared this information with you wanted it to remain confidential.

Our daily news feeds overflow with who said what to whom. But there is rarely a record of when a mouth stayed shut, a tongue never wagged, when information or comment, or critique or slander, was held back and not uttered. We—

—Wait! Do you know the derivation of the word “utter?” How close it is to “outer,” one of the four words in the title of this IP/OP class? this Inner Peace OUTER Peace Reader?

The verb utter, the adjective utter, and the noun utterance, all come from a medieval English root indicating “out.” Today we even use out as a verb–meaning to reveal a truth about someone that they had hoped to keep hidden. A gay person is “outed,” meaning “out of the closet,” but now the meaning has expanded. Now we out other people; we tell a hidden truth about a person, a truth that they may have wanted to keep hidden.

(Yes, you can out yourself. But be careful: you need to be honest about your motivation. You could slip into a disingenuous morality, a virtue signal you’re hoping that others will see. Maybe you need another mindful moment to critique yourself. Maybe you ought to stay silent.)

There are strategic reasons to “out” yourself, or someone else. Like, to gain an advantage in a conflict, a debate, or a subtle struggle for higher relative status. When you take the time to analyze this action, you realize it’s probably more common than you think, and not always nice. What if we were to insert a quick mindful practice, a self-critical inquiry, right before this utterance?

W.A.I.T. (Why Am I Talking?) It’s becoming a national movement. Although it hasn’t yet reached some people who really ought to join up.

“Why am I about to say this?”

” What do I hope to accomplish?”

” Is this going to be fair to the other party?”

” Have I done something like this before?”

” Will this utterance tip the balance of power in my direction?”

” Do I need to say this?”

“Do I need to talk so loud?”

” Might I hurt someone by speaking so? If I do, am I content to live with the consequences?”

“Or, am I also content to live with the consequences of staying silent?”

You always have a choice. Your other routine mindfulness practice, that fifteen or twenty minutes sitting with yourself, could give you a chance to return to these questions for a deeper consideration. In fact, we already do this in our regular lives. I imagine that we all have said to ourself,  “Ouch. Why did I just say that?” Or “Wow, I wish I could take that one back.” Or “Just looking at so and so’s eyes when I said that, I could tell that I really hurt them.”

When we actively try to transform a conflict, we acknowledge the persistence of the conflict—we may even want to mine some of its stored-up energy—at the same time as we try to get beyond the “sticks and stones” phase. But words can hurt, too, and some of the words that we have said may have to be taken back for reconsideration, even in a public way. Perhaps the difference between sticks and stones and words is that the damage done by words can be more easily repaired. But it would have been better had the words never been uttered.

So why is this essay called “Dramatic Irony?”

Did you wonder why?

Dramatic Irony is a technical expression used in theater. It refers to a moment when someone knows something about a character that the character does not yet know. The knowing person can be another character on stage or in a film. But the irony often refers to an audience member–even a reader of a book! You know something! And you are caught up in the question, “Oh, when is this character going to find this out?”

Dramatic irony is a deliberate technique that the writer uses, to engage the audience. Audiences like to be engaged in this way. It’s a delicious feeling, like the thrill that makes you, the reader, turn the page and go right on to the next chapter.

You can manufacture this pleasurable feeling for yourself when you choose silence. It’s one of the rewards of intentional irony. You might feel this if you are in a conflict, and you decide not to hot-react, to explore how that feels—to sit back and see how the other party will react to your silence.

Or, let’s say you have been asked to mediate a conflict. You sit in the middle and you can’t pick sides. You sit there and root for both sides. While you’re doing that, you can wait and see how Side Two will react when they finally find out what Side One has said.

Meanwhile, you have the right— I mean, the responsibility—to remain silent. Till you are asked to speak.

Some important information is buried on one side. It comes near to the surface. It doesn’t break through. Yet. You know about it, because that side has shared it with you beyond the other side’s hearing. When it finally comes out, it will have an effect on the whole process. But humans are human. We can’t predict what the effect is going to be. That’s part of the irony. Even part of the thrill.

There’s a whole other part to this story. But I’m not going to tell you right now.







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The Inner Peace Outer Peace Reader Copyright © by Peter Gould & John Ungerleider is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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