Today I wanted to write about an infection that is crippling our society. The world breeds it and it’s more dangerous than perhaps any virus. It cripples the mind’s ability to reason; it robs countless individuals from the hope of a brighter future and it makes the pain of the present unbearable at times. But here’s the thing: it isn’t grown in a lab and nature certainly hasn’t created it. There isn’t a vaccine to cure it, but there is something we can do to safeguard our families and ourselves. I would call it a silent killer, but it’s the exact opposite. The plague I’m referring to is noise. But there’s a cure. It’s free. It’s available to anyone, and yet the treatment may seem like a tough pill to swallow.
So, let’s talk about silence. Yes, you read that correctly. I’m about to do one of the most enigmatic things possible. As a communications specialist, I am going to talk about not speaking. Or more specifically, to say something about what silence says. What you can hear in silence. What it does to our relationships with others and ourselves and the implications of noise.
I’m not speaking of the kind of apathetic silence that allows the world’s evils to be perpetrated and perpetuated unchecked and creates resentment and unhealthy relationships. No, I’m speaking of the kind of silence that speaks for itself. The silence that makes your words more meaningful. The kind of silence that can change the world.
But first, let’s talk about the world in which we now live. We currently live in a world where silence is feared and avoided. Noise pollution is everywhere and people feel uncomfortable in moments of quiet. Why are we afraid of silence, when in reality, our bodies, at the deepest biological level, are terrified of noise?
According to Greg Johnson from the University of Pennsylvania our ears do not sleep. They are like watchmen, “they are on high alert, 24/7, eavesdropping on surroundings, searching for any sound signaling danger. One of their tormentors is noise, which can panic the body like stress.”
That means that even while we are sleeping, the brain can be releasing stress hormones that will leave us exhausted and our bodies confused. According to Dr. Mathias Basner, “Noise has been associated with sleep disturbance, cognitive impairment in children, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.” And that doesn’t even include the sociological and psychological impacts.
The incredible thing is that the louder our environments usually are, the more healing silence can be. In fact, in a study measuring the power of music, they were shocked to find that the most significant physiological result came in the brief silence between songs. The more intense the noise, the more powerful the quiet became.
But if cardiovascular disease and the like aren’t compelling enough to take silence seriously, let’s look at relationships. That includes the relationship we have with ourselves and with others.
When I was a teenager going through my obligatory existential crisis I did everything I could to avoid being alone with only my thoughts. When I wasn’t in anyone else’s company, I turned the music up to drown out the sound my own conscience and I chalked it up to the power of music; when in reality I just didn’t want to hear myself think. I was rather content with living in autopilot.
You see, the silence held me accountable to the person I’d caged up inside. The better version of me who could never have been complicit in the kind of selfish, indulgent lifestyle I’d been living. The incredible thing is that at the most fundamental level, I knew exactly who I wanted to be. The problem was, it was hard and so my subconscious mind protected me from it.
I wasn’t ready to be who I knew I wanted to be. It took silence to teach me all the truths I wouldn’t admit. Silence thought me about selflessness; it taught me about faith; it taught me about fear and about failure.
Some people call personal thought meditation. Others call it prayer. No matter what you call it, science proves that the more self aware you are, the better able you are to deal with the challenges you face in life. You’ll be happier, more productive, more creative, and the list goes on. So why do we fear silence? Verbal intonation and the words we speak make up less than half of our communication and yet we focus the most on it.
The truth is, words are cheap. The kind of deep thought and empathy that is fostered in silence is the kind you have to pay a price for. It’s not for the person who clings desperately to their walls or to their masks of of disingenuous fallacious fronts that we’re so inclined to hold onto. No, silence is for the brave.
Words mean almost nothing. It’s the silence that often gives them their power. It’s the juxtaposition of silence in oppression that gives a revolution its spark. It’s that moment of silence at the end of an inspiring speech or song that resonates somewhere deep within us. The silence that comes with awe. Not because it’s compulsory but because the weight of life demands it. Because humanity can transcend language and say something more important by saying nothing.
The question is, are you wiling to hear what it has to say? You can’t hide in silence. Not from yourself. Not from others.
In fact, one of the best ways to find deeper connections in your relationships with others is to employ the power of silence. In a circumstance when conversation isn’t a necessity, sit in a room with someone you love and say nothing. In my experience it will almost certainly do one of two things.
The first is that they’ll participate in what is called companionable silence. Which to me, always turns into compassionate silence. When we don’t have noise distracting us we can sense most clearly where another person is. You will perceive their pain, their joy, their contentment. But the point is, you’ll see them where they really are. Again, you can’t hide in silence, it’s the breeding ground for vulnerability.
The second possibility is that they will open up. They’ll let you see more of themselves. When we sit in silence, we show we’re there for someone, no matter the circumstance.
I genuinely believe that seeing others this fully will foster an amount of empathy that can truly change the world. Why is it that in the moments that matter most we hardly ever remember the words we heard but rather the way we felt? Why is it that in institutions of higher learning that show us how to elevate thought, in museums that teach us to see history for what it was, in galleries where we see an artists soul, and in churches where we see the hand of God, it is always quiet?
Where noise is, chaos abides. Where silence is, empathy flourishes.
Let me be clear, I love communication in all its forms. But I think we neglect one of the most powerful tools in communications. Some of my favorite heroes throughout history were fiercely introverted. That meant that if they were saying something, what they had to say mattered. If we say something only when it matters, our words will be more powerful.
In every aspect of our life, the power of silence can elevate us above the noise that numbs. We can experience silence in the loudest rooms because more than anything, it’s a state a being. Being awake. Being teachable. Being present. Being alive and human and seeing the humanity in others.
I’ll end with the words of Macrina Wiederkehr when she said, “Silence is like a river of grace inviting us to leap unafraid into its beckoning depths. It is dark and mysterious in the waters of grace. Yet in the silent darkness we are given new eyes. In the heart of the divine we can see more clearly who we are. We are renewed and cleansed in this river of silence. There are those among you who fear the Great Silence. It is a foreign land to you. Sometimes it is good to leap into the unknown. Practice leaping.”