The Necessity of Silence
It’s been a few weeks since I’ve written here. I have to believe it is because I had nothing to say. It’s a novel concept these days – keeping one’s trap shut when one has nothing to say. We’re encouraged to engage, to talk our ruddy heads off, to comment on every news story, to chatter on about celebrity mishaps and political misdeeds. We get attention for jumping into the latest outrage. We link and like and re-whatever. The nonsensical cacaphony pummels us, creating mental calluses until one death, one wrongdoing, one injustice is the equivalent of a new gadget or somebody’s after-baby body or the on-the-rocks marriage of strangers.
To allow ourselves to grow tender again is a daring thing these days. We might not be seen. We might not have presence. The last year of personal and family mishaps, the last few years of vitriolic public discourse, the constant stream of news about violence happening in real time, every minute of every day, have hardened me in unflattering ways. Inevitably there is no physical armor or fortress that can protect a person from the bruising of being a human in this world. We only get to select our weapon/defense of choice: love or hate.
There is a silence that matches our best possibilities when we have learned to listen to others. We can master the art of being quiet in order to be able to hear clearly what others are saying…We need to cut off the garbled static of our own preoccupations to give to people who want our quiet attention.
Eugene Kennedy, American Philosopher
I’ve made mistakes over the last couple of years. I’ve dotted some comment forums with spicy, sharp words refuting ignorance or hatred. Words were, as they are for many people, my weapon of choice. There is approximately 2.5 seconds of satisfaction before the shame sets in. This is not the person I set out to be. The extremes have come to dominate our civil conversations – normalizing behaviors that one wouldn’t accept from a toddler. Not just the tantrum in the White House, but a lot of us are slowly giving up bits of ourselves to anger and propaganda.
The argument for speaking up is so that one is not complacent or complicit or condoning something despicable. Many of us want to be part of the solution in a world where only the loudest voices are heard. Some of us just like to hear the sound of our own voice. I’ve started to ask myself who is listening, does my opinion carry any weight or make any difference, and do I have anything of value to add? The answers follow: a handful of people, no, and usually not.
There are 7.7 billion people on this planet, with 3.5 billion able to access the internet. A lot of people are speaking up. And many of them are the people who should – erudite, witty, sharp observers. Some are compassionate and welcoming and have ideas to move forward. Some speak out of lived experiences. Others of us are just meme repeaters. Somebody has already posted our thought times a thousand and added a picture. You could argue in the power of boosting a hashtag – a lot of social movements have them as their rallying cry. Maybe I’ve become a little too precious – refusing to become an indistinguishable part of a mob. Or what we sometimes call humanity.
I’m reading Paul Kingsnorth’s Savage Gods and it’s hitting me right in the solar plexus.
We are building a world in which silence is a crime: a waste of something. An empty thing which must be filled. Ours is a world of metaphors and sentences, unpunctuated, flowing on faster and faster, building in rhythm and urgency until they crash, fatally, into the last page of the book.
Savage Gods, Paul Kingsnorth, 2019
For the last couple of days, I’ve been unscheduled. The family has been off to work and school. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt myself. Solitude and silence allow me to sink inward, to reconnect with the person I am, not one buffeted about by external voices and news and appointments and crises. I have devolved into a tender little meat sack, all vulnerability and 70s ballads. I’ve been calling it a need for decompression, which suggests a forthcoming outward expansion. Instead, my inner tension releases. I have tears. I do little ridiculous dances about the house. I meditate, imagining that I am physically putting aside one anxiety after another.
Without those moments, those protected snippets of time, I forget who I am. I forget that it is better to remain silent than to lash out in frenzied anger. I forget that I can be circumspect and reasoned in the face of someone else’s frenzied anger. I forget that I don’t need to have an opinion on everything. I don’t have to weigh and judge every byte of information that comes my way. There are many people who are much better at responding in the moment. I am not that person and never have been, and I have to believe there is still room in this world for slow reaction times and thoughtfulness.
Sometimes I think my silence comes from paralysis. If you practice seeing any issue from multiple angles, you learn that no one is ever truly right. My passion has never been dogma. It has always been the pursuit of knowledge in hopes of finding wisdom. That’s a soft sell in a world that is full of know-it-alls. Truth is now treated as a perspective, not something in accordance with fact or reality. People seem to require very little of either to draw their own conclusions.
Silence is not, in and of itself, an indicator of virtue or vice. It is what happens in that space that makes it valuable. Like sleep, it gives our brain time to integrate information, instead of speeding onto to the next shiny thing. It gives us space to remember who we are – and in a world that insists on talking increasingly louder and faster, who we are is all we really have to hold onto.