Working in higher education and being a current student, silence is a virtue I strive for but continually fail to achieve. When I entered my program, I was inspired by stories of Saint Mary’s students who immersed themselves in the learning experience to find academic discovery. I sought to embody the same vigor and desire to learn; I envisioned myself plunging into research and challenging myself in new ways.
A few courses into my program and some considerable life changes in the works, my academic endeavor was starting to become a game of choices. A multitude of obligations tugged at my attention and effort from various directions. My time for exploration and learning started to turn into a planned series of hoops to jump through with the aim of checking another obligation off of my growing list.
Rather than entering into silence to contemplate my work and think critically, my mind was a cacophony of noise. For the sake of being efficient, I had already decided what insightful conclusions my writing assignments would come to and sought sources to fit my preconceived notions. I had a solution and was searching for a problem to fit it to. In retrospect, it was not unlike what Father Greg Boyle describes in his book, “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.” In the chapter titled “Slow Work,” Father Boyle shares how his intervention work with gang members in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles requires a good dose of patience and silence. He refers to a story about a gang member named Leo. Father Boyle worked tirelessly with Leo to find him job interviews to offer him a path for a better life; however, each opportunity fell through. Father Boyle came to realize no matter how much he desired a better life for Leo, it would make no difference unless Leo desired the same. In the end, Leo came back to Father Boyle in earnest seeking help starting a peaceful life; they were able to find Leo meaningful work as a supervisor of an animal shelter (Boyle, 2011).
The part of this story that resonates with my situation is that wanting something and willing it to be so does not make that thing happen. As I sought to find research that supported the conclusions I had already drawn, I re-read the objectives of my writing assignments and realized I missed an integral part. I would need to start over. However, this was perhaps the best thing for me.
When I allowed myself to set aside my obligations, and turned down the volume of the constant buzz in my mind, I found the pure joy of learning. My research led the way as I critically contemplated concepts and ideas and formulated my own thoughts and applications from them. After I completed my writing assignments, I could see the ideas that emerged in the presence of silence were much stronger than those that came from an overstimulated mind.
The experience of leaning into silence to find learning reminded me that sometimes the best plan is to stay quiet and be receptive to the ideas and opportunities that emerge.
Boyle, G. (2011). Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. Free Press.