Were you ever part of a conversation that veered into a spat and you longed to have the last word, but the other person wanted it just as badly, so you bickered on, losing yourselves in a futile spiral of words? Then, maybe you were lucky, and you realised the last word didn’t matter; that you were engaged in creating word-debris, a verbal slagheap that, although invisible, was just as bad as leaving all your picnic wrappings and rubbish behind after a day out in the countryside. There are times, I’m sure of it, when words pollute like plastic. I’m also sure that talking is a good thing, but being quiet has its benefits too. Quiet, either simply for the sake of the peace that it brings, or quiet as a form of retreat from something that words will not solve – at least not for the present. The quiet I speak of is not the, ‘talk to the hand’ variety, the antagonistic refusal to engage. This is the quiet of knowing when to stop scratching a sore that doesn’t heal, calling quits on rhetorical jousting.
From a young age, we’re taught to speak up, to be heard and that our truth matters – all of which is correct. However, this may leave quietude with an image problem, bearing too close an affiliation with timidity, shyness and the path to getting trampled. How often do we think of silence as something powerful? What about considering the strength and bravery in guarding one’s words, in holding the silence, in listening fully and not providing a commentary? We’re all formed out of habits, and a bad one of mine is listening to what others say in terms of how it relates to me, what it triggers in me, what it reminds me of, instead of just listening, reflecting and saying little or nothing. We are so used to the babble of conversation that I think we’re afraid that quiet listening might across as one-way and rude. A friend of mine, with whom I speak rarely but write often, wrote to me about her new approach to communication. ‘I had the strongest feeling to be true to myself,’ she told me. ‘In one case it was to speak up and in the other to say and do nothing. I felt so fearless and empowered in a completely new way. I am aware of being vigilant in all my interactions to be entirely in integrity.’
The silence, in particular, sounds hard, to me anyway, but one can always go back and add words to a conversation – it is less easy, however, to remove them. I’m well aware that not speaking (or speaking less) can create a shift in atmosphere, one that might be uncomfortable in its rarity. ‘Being sent to Coventry’ was an insidious, old-fashioned practice that I associate (probably unfairly) with English public schools in the 1950’s, and ‘freezing out’, as it might be better known now, still exists as a nasty and dangerous tactic; dangerousbecause sometimes silence can be hard to return from. Yet, I think there is a place for of silence and withholding words, be it as a means of de-escalating, a form of protection, or a method of protest. The world seems to feed off feuds, misunderstandings and disagreements. We can and will talk our way out of them, but sometimes it might all end with silence. And if the silence leads to a parting, a leaving, a quitting, then maybe it has been done with just as many words as necessary: not too few, not too many.
Silent retreats exist in every religious and spiritual tradition. Silence can drive one to agony or ecstasy, can hasten a descent to madness or nourish an awakening. I’ve not been on a silent retreat, but living alone I have become used to periods of quiet and I crave it, even for an hour or two, if I’m in company for too long. This morning I was reading Ben Okri’s, The Freedom Prisoner, in which he speaks of ‘absorbing silences’, silences that take us upwards and inwards, to ourselves and nature. He urges us to listen truly to the message silence brings, what noises come out of it – urgent, gentle, rippling, repeating, enfolding sounds from nature. To be alert to the sights that come from silence – the flash of a field mouse disappearing into the hedge, the emotions passing over the face of a stranger. He assures us, and I believe him, we can all learn from silence.
Past One O’clock, by Vladimir Mayakovsky (Translated by Max Hayward and George Reavey)
Past one o’clock. You must have gone to bed.
The Milky Way streams silver through the night.
I’m in no hurry; with lightning telegrams
I have no cause to wake or trouble you.
And, as they say, the incident is closed.
Love’s boat has smashed against the daily grind.
Now you and I are quits. Why bother then
To balance mutual sorrows, pains, and hurts.
Behold what quiet settles on the world.
Night wraps the sky in tribute from the stars.
In hours like these, one rises to address
The ages, history, and all creation.