To Speak or Not to Speak

Allison Gustavson
10 min readApr 5, 2022

Using words to help decide when words are necessary.

Nothing like putting your ideals to the test in concrete and immediate ways.

I’d planned to come home and spend some time writing for this new project I’m calling “Crucible”: the idea is to drill down, with as much honesty and integrity as I can muster, into that murky territory where, for me, the personal meets the political. The road to individual and collective hell appears to be paved with opinions divorced from conscious, lived experience; I’ve seen it in my own life, and I’m also seeing, in real time, what happens when I open myself up to new ways of being. For reasons that are not entirely ours to claim, we are each, to some extent, disconnected from — and, even more to the point, do not truly trust — ourselves, which, my working theory goes, is the wellspring of almost all of our other cultural and existential problems. The work of extracting ourselves from toxic culture begins, I think, with an intimate reckoning with the workings of our own operating system.

I was going to have a nice procrastinatory snack and check on the progress of our deck installation before sitting down at the old laptop. I’d started to say “the replacement of our old, rotting deck,” but I caught myself, because while that’s technically true — we are replacing a rotting deck — it’s not the full story, because we are also expanding the entire thing and making it much bigger, better, and more beautiful, and I’m super excited about it. I was afraid to say that, though, because I worry that it makes me sound absurdly fortunate. Which I undoubtedly am, especially in a moment of extreme economic polarity and suffering (an analysis for another day); but hiding behind the more easily justifiable reasons to replace our deck in an attempt to seem more relatable ≠ “drilling down with honesty and integrity” (see: the stated goal of this newsletter), so there you go.

That (formerly) rotting part of the deck, though, is off the kitchen; as I grabbed a handful of granola on my way toward the sliding glass door, my heart lurched as one of the guys rounded the corner, plank in hand, in a navy t-shirt with a big American flag taking up most of the space on the front. Even before I read its message, I knew it couldn’t be good, because — as any left-leaning American knows — flag swag is predominantly associated, now, with a sinking feeling of hateful MAGA rhetoric. And I was right: the t-shirt read, “Your mask is as useless as Biden.”

The t-shirt in question.

My face flushed, my pulse accelerated. I have been trying to actually pay attention to my emotions lately — rather than just rush past them — and so I did stop to notice this before the inevitable onslaught of thoughts, judgments, and strategies papered over the raw experience. I was pissed, and in a primal way. First of all, I felt almost territorially violated: this is my home, my place to have my own thoughts and feelings and to curate an environment that reflects our family and its values, sensibilities, and aspirations. This felt like a symbolic invasion of a timeless human agreement, an imposition on my place and property without my consent. Secondly, this was the guy I liked more than his partner, who always looks about three minutes away from putting a nail through someone’s eye; I was not only furious, but also disappointed. And third, I found myself almost impulsively needing to express my anger and insult, and I was overcome with a sense of too-muchness that I needed to share, which was both uncomfortable to hold — like a hot potato — and also made me feel a bit ridiculous and shameful.

So what did I actually do?

I texted my husband a photo, saying “I think it’s really fucking inappropriate that he’s wearing this shirt to build our deck. I want to be like ‘your shirt is as moronic as your perspective.’” I do not think this is the most clever comment out there, but it was the best I could come up with at the moment, and it would (once again) conflict with my stated goal if I took that oft-longed for “extra time” to craft a wittier response and claim that it was my original.

I then connected to our bluetooth speaker (selecting — for real — “Nancy Pelosi” from the bluetooth list, because it’s our “Speaker of the House”), and blasted Hamilton really loud. I’d been planning to carry on listening a bit longer after my car ride home — maybe a song or two before sitting down at the computer — and I felt both petulantly committed to not letting this guy derail that plan and somewhat smugly certain that he’d notice that I was not a receptive audience for his bullshit t-shirt. I played it for about a half of a song, and then felt really stupid about the whole thing (does this guy even know Hamilton? Perhaps. Does he give a shit about my music choices? No. Was I enjoying it at all anymore? No.) and so, with an embarrassed sense of foiled and childish “I’ll show him-ness,” I capitulated to the obvious necessity of shutting it off.

I had that weirdly sheepish feeling where you’re embarrassed but are relatively certain there are no witnesses to it, so you’re mostly embarrassed in front of yourself, like tripping on an empty street. Still uncertain as to what to do next, I went and grabbed the vacuum and — in plain view of the deck guys — started vacuuming, shifting my discomfort to a different self-consciousness about looking like a homemaker who had nothing more important to do. Which was hard to argue with, given the facts (and dog hair) on the ground.

But I’ve always found vacuuming to be a particularly meditative and clarifying activity. As I vacuumed, I pondered: was this not an opportunity to exercise precisely the muscles that this newsletter (the one I’d planned to procrastinate writing) seeks to engage? Was this not the very same thing I talk about every chance I get, namely the crucial importance of approaching this political moment through a more conscious and self-aware, less knee-jerk and binary lens? Did I not write a whole article about engaging with our gun-toting, Trump-supporting neighbors? Is this not the main thing I talk about when people ask me about my 2018 state rep campaign? Aside from the fact that I knew I was “right” — that, as my husband put it, just to frame the argument although not necessarily making a recommendation, “first amendment does not apply in private work spaces, ie he can’t just wear whatever he wants because it’s in the constitution [sic]” — is there something, I thought, that this situation offers that is more important than just being “right”?

Part of me wanted to let his boss, the business owner, know that this was an unprofessional affront and that I didn’t appreciate it. Part of that part didn’t want to get the guy in trouble, and also didn’t want to have an angry man working on a platform hovering fifteen feet above our patio, even though I am certain that he’s not that kind of guy.

Part of me considered the possibility, however remote, that this guy didn’t really espouse the ideas on his shirt or even give much thought to them; perhaps it was a stupid gift and had, as such, been relegated to the sweaty grind of his daily job.

Part of me recognizes that, regardless, this was a hair-splitting bit of cultural minutiae in a fraught and tragic global moment dominated by images of unspeakable brutality, although — just like Will Smith’s slap the night before — speaking my mind would, in its narrative completeness, allow me to explore complex social dynamics within a relatively tight frame. That slap illuminated so much, I think, about the way we inhabit our lives: the density and complexity of our accumulated experience, and how much we bring all of that stuff into any given moment, whether we want to or not. Whether we’re interacting with someone at the grocery store or accepting an Academy Award, each moment of our lives is a complete snapshot of who we think we are, should be, and can be — the parts we allow and the parts we suppress — and they all count equally.

Which brings me back to the deck guy: life obviously doesn’t afford the luxury of time and space to do this much reflecting on how we’d like to react to a provocation, but it still seemed a worthy exercise: if I had all the time in the world, what would be the best and highest version of my response to this guy’s stupid t-shirt? What would bring about less of the same crap in the world — my deepest goal — and more of something better?

Here are some more considerations:

Aside from the fact that he was wearing it at my house, was this shirt any more offensive than 99% of the shit I’ve thought, written, and said about Trump? Is this really any more insulting than the “Any Functioning Human, 2020” bumper sticker I still have (admittedly not on my car)? I had a whole conversation in my head about the effectiveness of masks, not to mention Biden, but did I really feel like having that conversation with this guy? And as I said before, does he even remember that he’s wearing this shirt?

How could I approach this situation with curiosity, I wondered, rather than a predetermined idea of how I’d like it to turn out? And now that I’ve been writing it all down, what part of me is looking to wring clear meaning from the situation to bring about a dramatic conclusion to this piece that will make me look wise and inspire others to encounter political rivals with a new orientation?

When I now imagine going out there and talking with him, it feels contrived. It feels like I’d be twisting myself into knots, trying to ensure that the story turns out a certain way. It feels inauthentic, and it also feels like a counterproductive power dynamic: a guy working on my house, adding a fancy deck, having no choice but to listen to the liberal mom try and use the relationship to bring about a transformation in which he has no personal investment. Unlike the revelatory conversations I’ve had in the past with my so-called political rivals, this now feels like it’s ostensibly in service of a broader and unimpeachable ideal, but is, in reality at this point, entirely about me.

So I have decided, conclusively, that I will say nothing and leave it at that. But this “saying nothing” feels like it comes from a place of discernment and respect: respect for myself, because it’s in conscious alignment with my truest feelings at the moment, and respect for the very real boundaries between this man and me. I am willing to honor those boundaries, even if he’s in violation of them, and my willingness does not feel fearful or self-righteous, but calm and full. I have learned about myself and he has no idea and that’s fine.

It’s no new observation to note that we are, more than ever, compelled to weigh in on literally everything: to have a complete worldview and to defend it, at all times and from all directions, from annihilation. In Hamilton, Aaron Burr exhorted Alexander to “talk less, smile more”; this, we know, came from a place of strategic neutrality, a desire to gain power through a shapeshifting avoidance of conviction. It was certainly not to Burr’s credit, and it was the reason (at least according to the play; I’m sure it was at least a bit more complicated!) that Hamilton voted for Jefferson, despite their opposing values and hostilities: he knew that Jefferson stood for what he stood for, and that he was willing to stand publicly.

In a world brimming with injustice, I am certainly not arguing for a bystander mentality. But in our deep-seated desire to see the world become other than what it is — and with literally unlimited avenues of communication and vehicles for our commentary on an equally unlimited avalanche of topics and occurrences — we seem to have completely lost the ability to include the contemplation of ourselves and an honest accounting of our very human impulses and urges within the broader context about which we feel compelled to weigh in. It is a noisy world, and we are, even with the best of intentions, making it noisier every day.

So perhaps Aaron Burr got it partially right. I chose not to say anything to this guy — “talk less” — but that silence came from a place of examined truth. I’ve released the entire situation, and am letting him recede back to the periphery of my mind, while he continues (uninterrupted, mind you) to put the finishing touches on our deck. I have withdrawn any sense of obligation to make our encounters feel more friendly and hospitable (“Hey, do you guys need anything? Coffee, water?”) than a simple, emotion-less transaction (“Yep! The fuse box is in the garage.”). Where Burr suggested a disingenuous and manipulative smile to accompany the not-talking, I think this “T-Shirt (non)Event of 2022” will be, for me, a concrete touchstone for future discernment.

We’ve landed, I think, on a false choice between “talk less, smile more” and “speak your mind.” We cannot turn away from the crises of our time, but we will not solve them by throwing the hot potatoes of our discomfort onto every complicated or heartbreaking event that flashes across our awareness and, thus relieved, moving on to the next one.

If I hadn’t switched off the speaker in red-cheeked shame, I would have soon heard Hamilton singing these words:

But Jesus, between all the bleedin’ ’n’ fightin’
I’ve been readin’ ’n’ writin’

There was no blood spilled, obviously, no fighting — nor even the risk of fighting — on my emerging deck in the quiet foothills of Evergreen, Colorado. But having chosen to think, read, and write about this provocation rather than simply react to it, I think I have tapped into something much greater and more lasting than the release of endorphins that would have come from a direct confrontation with this otherwise Very Forgettable Character in my own life story: a growing reservoir of trust in myself that comes from deep listening and is, quietly, the foundational source of everything else.



Allison Gustavson

> teacher > mom > writer > activist organizer > candidate for state rep in coastal Massachusetts > TBD in Colorado foothills >