I got a call last spring from an old friend I hadn’t seen in many years. He was scheduled to deliver a keynote address at a prep school commencement coming up in a few weeks, but he just didn’t have time to write the speech. Could I do it? Sure! What sort of topic did he have in mind? He said, “I want to do something about the value of silence.” That’s all he had to tell me – I could already hear the speech unfolding in my head.
Parts of that commencement address are below, in the italicized sections.
Part of what makes living in Maine so special is the ready availability of quiet. Even if our lives are filled with other people and family or our worklife has a soundtrack of noisy equipment or phone calls or chatty customers, silence is always close by. Perhaps surprisingly, it can start with us.
Silence can be a real asset for you when you’re in conversation with others – whether it’s from you or others. But as we know, it’s not very common, or valued, in contemporary western society where the sheer volume of words seems more important than the sense they make… Many people want to fill empty spaces in dialogue with words, no matter how dull or trivial. We feel the need to keep talking to and at each other no matter what. But elsewhere, in other cultures, silence can be as powerful and as eloquent as anything that might be spoken.
We have friends around us whose metabolisms are set (like ours) to cruise control. It’s natural that most of us tend to gather with people of a similar pace. And we all know the fragility of that pace when we have visitors from the cities to the south and west of us, who bring their urgency with them. As their hosts, we rise to meet them halfway, answering the questions, filling the smallest gap in conversation with another noise. Or, more bravely, we don’t respond at all and let a small chunk of silence speak for itself.
…it illustrates what Henry David Thoreau once wrote: ” In human intercourse the tragedy begins, not when there is misunderstanding about words, but when silence is not understood.”
Maine hasn’t changed me that much. I came here with my internal clock set to “easy does it,” and it seemed to agree perfectly with the culture here. My work – writing, making up crossword puzzles, photography – is absolutely bathed in silence. In the past, in the company of go-go, revved-up types competing for air time, I could try to match them if I wanted to, but I generally decided no, don’t bother, better not to.
In the art of listening, silence is fundamental… What I, or anyone else, is not saying oftentimes speaks more loudly, and more clearly, than the words being said. This is especially true, I think, of people who tend to struggle with their own honesty, or who resist candor, or who feel style is more important than substance – but it is true of all of us from to time. When listening to others, discern what they’re not saying, understand it, respect it, and find a way to respond to it in a way that supports and honors its importance.
Couples, families, partners, even a gathering of good friends know what silence is between them. It’s a natural part of living under the same roof. More silence among them tends to support closer, more active listening when words are spoken.
But there’s a flip side as well. A sociological study a few years ago focused on a certain family dynamic: it sought to discover how much time each day a parent had direct eye contact with a child. By finding a lot of volunteer families and setting up video cameras, they gathered all their data and came to their conclusions. The average amount of time a parent had eye contact with a child each day was just four seconds.
Families become so used to routines, with familiar actions and movements and schedules, that true listening doesn’t seem very important – until a child finally calls out in frustration, “You’re not listening to me!” or a parent shouts, “Listen to me!” We’ve all been there: even in the closest, most loving families we can always be better and more consistent listeners.
Good listeners tend to speak less. The benefit of this is simple: The less we speak, the better we’re listened to when we do speak. Fewer words carry more weight.
…true listening results in discovery. Talk show host Larry King said something surprising for someone who made his living by talking. He said, “I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.”
Sh… it’s inside.
I believe “alone time,” or “internal time,” becomes more valuable to us as we get older. We see things more clearly, how things really are around us, how our lives have played out, for good or ill. What we saw (say, twenty years ago) that was muddy and indistinct now finds sharp focus. Things that were once a jumble now fit more cleanly.
…part of that self-focus means listening to yourself. Not the words you speak or your tone, but everything that’s inside you. If you’re an artist or musician or writer or any kind of creative person, listen to your muses – those unknowable sources of inspiration that seem to be both within us, and outside of us, at the same time. If you’re a religious or spiritual person, listen to your God, frequently and earnestly. All of us are instinctual beings, so listen to your instincts with the respect they deserve.
Havens of silence around us, and times of silence inside us, are calming, nourishing, and restorative. A “secret sauce” to a good life.
(all photos – except Henry and Margaret – are of Sharkeyville Cove on the Weskeag River, by Carla P. White.)