The Subtle Power of Omission

The Subtle Power of Omission May 12, 2020

I am helping to edit an online commentary that is sorted by books of the Bible. Each passage has its own page and you click an arrow to scroll to the next page (or backward to the previous one). For example, if you are on a passage contained in Ruth 2:4-11, you would read the commentary and when you were ready to see more, click the arrows that would take you to the page for Ruth 2:12-18.

The reason I just explained this familiar system to you is because a few days ago it broke down for me. I was in Exodus Chapter 2 and was reading about Moses as a baby being snatched up by Pharaoh’s daughter. I clicked the right arrow and was suddenly reading about Moses in the desert of Midian.

Somehow, the commentators had made a mistake. One entire passage was missing. There was a gap in the timeline. It was only a few verses, maybe ten at most, in a sea of Scripture. But it covered most of Moses’ life and left me pretty confused.

 

Omission

This happens in our lives as well. What we don’t say is almost as important as what we do say. One of the joys of marriage is that sometimes your spouse will add something to a story you’d otherwise have omitted – like how drunk you were or how late you slept or how you wet the bed when you were a child.

Omission is a powerful part of story-telling. A silent sort of power, but a significant one nonetheless. When I omit embarrassing parts of a story, I am protecting myself.

Of course, no one can say everything about everything. Even if we were capable, it would be tedious and absurd. Sometimes we make omissions out of necessity.

But often we don’t. Often our omissions are subtle manipulations, ways to frame the story in which I am the hero.

In this way, omissions tell us a lot about what we value, what we are trying to protect, and what we are willing to share with others.

 

Filling In The Gaps

Because of the necessity for omission, we spend a lot of our time filling in the gaps. I am not just talking about sociology. We fill in the gaps about what we expected to see. One of our interns was hanging out with a friend over Christmas break. Both were present when our intern was telling us about being there – it was warm and cozy and there was a Christmas tree up. The host interrupted and said, “We don’t have a Christmas tree”. Our intern was legitimately baffled. He hadn’t lied; he was just sure there was a Christmas tree there because the warm and cozy atmosphere made him think of Christmas and his memory filled in the gap by adding something to reinforce that connection. Something that wasn’t there.

We fill in omissions with the connections, associations, and patterns our brains have already developed.

The thing that is so powerful about this is that it leads to a lot of miscommunication. It leads to a lot of confusion, even conflict. It makes it difficult for people, organizations, and relationships to seek and share truth. The power of omission is a silence we need to pay attention to.

The most significant “cure” to the power of omission is to just be aware of it. Assume a posture of humility. Assume there are things you are getting wrong, gaps in the narrative you are filling with predispositions. Don’t crucify someone else when they do it and ignore it when you do. Talk it out. Words are one of the most intentional ways we communicate. If you are in a rough spot with relational communication, comb through your conversations and see if the power of omission is dragging you down.

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