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Listening to silence

June 4, 2021

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My first memories related to the use of silence and it being golden came from my parents. One day, I was arguing loudly with some of my siblings. I can’t remember what we were arguing about, but we eventually drew our mother in. I remember my mother saying, “In this case, it seems that the empty vessel is making the most noise.” I don’t know how the others felt, but I felt those words were directed to me. I became quiet. Her simple comment forever forced me to rethink how I engage in arguments. Today, when an argument is brewing I am quick to say, “I retire.”  “I concede.” “I accept defeat.” Colloquially speaking, “I am done talking.”

Walking away from an argument gives me the space, time, and silence to reflect on my contentions. Now, instead of arguing, I prefer to journal. As a result, I have written many essays. As I grew older, I often wondered if my mom’s comment was a reference to William Shakespeare’s saying, “The empty vessel makes the greatest sound,” in “Henry V” (Act IV, Scene 4). Whether it did or not, it certainly influenced how I engage in conversations today.

Another memory on the role of silence came from my dad when I was a teenager. I can’t remember how the conversation started, but I can remember him saying there are only two things you need to have a good reputation: wisdom and integrity. He then went on to say, “To be wise, one must cultivate silence.” For years, I thought this was a Bertrand Russell’s quotation, since he was a big fan of his and I heard many of his quotations. I later found out it more matches another British philosopher’s, Francis Bacon, quotation, “Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom.”

Integrity is fulfilling every promise you make, because promises are debts that must be paid. Hopefully you have the wisdom to only make promises that can be kept.

So, while the value of silence has been a part of me, in writing this essay I can easily say this is the first time I have spent more than 10 minutes reflecting on this simple yet complex word. In our language, there are several clichés associated with silence: silence is golden, deafening silence, silence speaks volumes, sound of silence, etc. These clichés were born out of various contexts of the human experience.

The word silence can mean many things to many people. In some contexts, silence can be a treasure. In others, it can be dreadful. In the context of silence being a treasure, it could be an emergency room nurse who after many hours of intense work, desperately wants a break from all of the beeping and organized chaos of an emergency room. It could be a harried mom dealing with four sick kids and having many sleepless nights. This mom longs for the kids to all be asleep at the same time so she can cherish silence. In this context, silence is golden.

Silence is a dread when, for example, you are working on a patient and the heart monitor stops registering a pulse. You and the team frantically try to get the heart beating again, but the silence of the monitor fills the room. In this context, the silence can be deafening.

So, what is the sound of silence? Well, if you can hear it, is it really silence? Again, it is all context. This reminds me of the quotation, “There are times when silence is the best way to yell at the top of your voice,” from O. A. Battista. Yes, silence can be heard.

If you have read my other virtue essays, you know gardening is included. It is said, if you are silent and you are in the middle of a cornfield, you can hear the corn grow. I have heard the sound likened to the tearing of cotton fabric or leaves stretching and breaking. If recorded and played in fast forward, it sounds like one is frying an egg. The trick to hearing the corn grow is being silent. You have to shut out the noise from the wind, the distant car, the barking dog, and the inner noise within your head.

In confession, while I had many opportunities to actually try to listen to see if I could hear the corn grow, I never did. I even lived in Iowa for years; in my younger days, I prepared hundreds of acres of land to plant corn. During the growing season, I cultivated, mound, injected anhydrous, and was too busy working to notice. At night, I was too tired to even think about listening to corn grow. Listening to corn grow in itself would be a powerful meditative activity as one centers and calms oneself.

As I have matured, I do find silence as I garden. For me, gardening allows me to be lost in the moment. Gardening is not a task to be done; it is something to be enjoyed. This reminds me of a comment I heard when I was a teenager. I was talking to a couple in their early 70s about how they spent their time. The man said, “I like gardening.” The woman added, “It is more than like, when he gardens, he gardens.” As a teenager, this made little sense to me. Today, it not only speaks volumes, it applies to me. When I garden, I garden. There is a powerful silence and peace when this is happening. This reminds me of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s quotation, “There is no need to go to India or anywhere else to find peace. You will find that deep place of silence right in your room, your garden, or even your bathtub.”

From a spiritual perspective, silence is also critical. I remember a story of a man complaining to his friends that he spent years praying hours a day, but it seems that God was not listening because nothing in his life changed. One of his friends paused and said, “Have you ever sat in silence and listened? Maybe God is talking to you, but you are so busy praying you can’t hear what God is trying to tell you.”

In closing, it seems the word silence is indeed powerful, and it would be to our advantage if we embrace the complexity of this word and use it to develop ourselves. In the process, hopefully we become wise. I believe many of us could benefit from Francis Bacon’s quotation, “Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom.”