Imagine being in a room full of strangers and not being able to speak. Meals have to be eaten in silence. You’re not allowed to talk to your roommate. You can’t even say, “Pass the butter,” or “What’s your name and why are you here?”
This is exactly what my friend signed up for when she decided to attend a Silent Retreat; two full days of not speaking to anyone.
At first, I thought this sounded like a strange way to spend a weekend. But my friend said, “When you shut out the clamor of conversation, you stop focusing on what you’re going to say next or what kind of impression you might make on another person. Silence frees you to observe other people and the world around you without the interference of ego.”
“We’re really a society that’s afraid of silence,” she continued when I looked skeptical. “We feel like every pause in a conversation is a void we have to fill.”
I decided there was a lot of truth to what she said when I hosted a dinner party a few weeks later. There were eight of us, so the conversation went along pretty well. But if there was the slightest pause, someone always jumped in to save us from the threat of silence. Sometimes a speaker was only pausing long enough to gather her thoughts. Before she could take a deep breath and continue her story, the conversation got sidetracked by another person using the pause to redirect to a different topic.
One time during a discussion class I was attending, the instructor gave a brief monologue, then threw out a question for discussion. It took a minute to consider the question and formulate a response, but the instructor looked uneasy with those few seconds of silence. Before anybody could speak up, he said, “I guess nobody has anything to say on that subject. We’ll move on.” This went on for 30 minutes, until finally somebody in class broke in and said, “Wait! You’re not giving us time to think!”
I’ve found the best discussion leaders are ones who aren’t afraid of silence. They ask a question, then wait. Sometimes nobody speaks up right away. People might shift nervously in their seats or glance uneasily around to see if anybody else is going to talk. If the leader can hold out through this social uneasiness, someone eventually speaks up and a good discussion follows.
Why are we so afraid of silence? Why do we feel compelled to fill every conversational lapse with a flurry of words? I believe it’s because we’re afraid of seeming dull or boring. A pause to gather our thoughts or assimilate what the other person is saying is interpreted as having nothing to say. The brief silence that might have generated a thoughtful response is filled with chatter and an opportunity to respond with anything but the most cursory of remarks is lost.
Marty Nemko, Ph.D., writes in Psychology Today, “In conversation, we underestimate the power of silence.” How many times, when listening to another person speak, do we catch ourselves focusing on what we’re going to say next? We lose our ability to listen, really listen, by believing we’re called to fill in any conversational gaps our own words of wit or wisdom.
Growing up in my house, the extroverts were the admired ones. At family events, when dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins were gathered around after a meal, everybody competed for “floor time.” Relatives vied to see who could tell the wittiest, most horrific, or most engaging story.
One of my uncles didn’t participate in the conversational mayhem. He listened with an interested smile, laughing at the appropriate times, but never told any stories himself. If anybody asked him a personal question, he rarely gave a direct answer. As a result, we all looked on him as somewhat mysterious. A family rumor started that he was a spy or a CIA agent, which of course he wasn’t.
I remember when I went on my first date as a young teenager. I was so afraid of not having enough to say that I wrote out a list of conversational topics on a slip of paper and hid it in my purse. In case there was a lull, I planned on moving to the next topic on my list.
We avoid silence in conversation, and sometimes we even avoid it when we’re alone. One of my friends says her husband keeps the TV going all night because he can’t sleep without the noise. Maybe we don’t go to that extreme, but how many times do we keep a TV or radio on just to have something playing in the background? We’re afraid of being bored or of being alone with our thoughts. Silence is something to be avoided at all costs.
But not everybody disparages silence. Bruce Davis, Ph.D., writes, “The first Christians and Jews went into the desert. Buddhists and Hindus have sought out caves or mountaintops. Philosophers and great thinkers have found basements, labs or a hidden garden.”
Meditation and prayer allow us to slow down and focus. We’re able to get in touch with inner emotions and thoughts too often camouflaged by a world of noise and activity. The chaos and clamor that keep our brains whirling and flitting from one thing to the next recede when we allow silence to occupy some space in our lives.
The Bible has a few things to say on behalf of silence. Here’s one of them:
“Even dunces who keep quiet are thought to be wise; as long as they keep their mouths shut, they’re smart.” Proverbs 17:28 (Message Bible)
You’ve heard the phrase, silence is golden. My friend who went on the Silent Retreat said “You can learn a lot about people by observing. Sometimes they don’t need to talk. Their smiles and actions speak louder than words.”
Maybe if we stop being afraid of what other people think and of being alone with our own thoughts we can embrace silence as a rare opportunity to mine those inner depths that are buried beneath layers of noise and activity. By training ourselves to tune into the spiritual nudges and ideas that flow through the peacefulness of silence, we train ourselves to appreciate an inner world that bolsters and enhances our pleasure in the world outside of our thoughts. Rather than being afraid of silence, we use it to gain strength and wisdom.
This story is a response to writing prompt #27.