While there are arguably not many things in philosophy that we can call ‘Absolutely True’ there is at least one thing in life that is certain. Those who have met me know that I tend to talk…at lot! After recently enjoying my birthday (which I celebrate, as I find birthdays a far better option than the alternative) I found myself pondering things such as adulthood, maturity, and knowledge. I wondered to myself, have I reached an age where I can be considered adult? And does that also mean that I am mature? And if I am mature, does that mean that I finally have ‘some knowledge’? And if I don’t have knowledge, then how do I get some? Socrates said that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing at all. This acknowledgement, according to the Oracle, if I understand correctly, made Socrates the wisest man in the world. I wonder, though, if perhaps something else made Socrates so clever. Famous for his dialectic questioning, he had to have been very skilled at one thing: Listening! Listening is not the forte of someone, such as myself, who tends to talk too much. Though we, as students, tend to spend most of our day engaged in listening, for many reason, it appears that we are not very good at it. Scientific evidence will tell us that this is caused (among other things) by the fact that thought speed by far outruns speaking speed. Often people may find themselves bored with a presentation, or already planning rebuttals to arguments before the other person has quite finished speaking. Hoping that age will bring some knowledge, I decided that this year, I will practice listening more and speaking less (…this is not going well at all, I might add!). Listening, I realized, would mean that I would have to be silent. In order to do that effectively, I had to consider what that really means. What is silence?
I recall reading that it has become popular to take silence-trips to Asia. The vacations include a stay at a ‘silent monastery’ where the days would be spent in complete silence. Weeks of not saying anything at all, is reported to be an agonizing exercise. (Yikes…I can’t even imagine…) Many Westerners seem to find this painful at some level. Then, after some time in the silent world, however, these same people will report that they find peace, tranquility, and….a real dialogue in the silence.
What does that mean?? Can silence be a dialogue? It is active then? Or passive? It is Evil, or Good? What is communication? And is silence necessary? Davidie Melodia wrote this poem:
Some speak … and say nothing. Some are silent … because they have nothing to say. Some are silent … to listen. Some are silent … so as not to tell the truth. Some are silent … because they are afraid. Some are silent … because they are proud. Some are silent … and in their own way eloquent. God is the most eloquent of all those who are silent.
Can silence be a dialogue? In the book: What is Religion, John Haught writes about silence as a necessity of religion. He gives us an example from the Christian scripture The Bible. In this book, Job tells God that he will speak no more, yet, as one reads the chapter 40: 3-5, one gets the distinct sense that they are, in fact, now communicating more effectively than when Job was speaking. God proceeds to ask many questions to which Job replies. He does so, however, only after acknowledging that “now [after the silence] my eye can seeth thee” (Job 42:5). This seems important to me. Job teaches us that through the silence he has found a gift, namely the ability to see that which escaped his view before he went into silence. So if we must go into silence to see things that we would not otherwise see, and thus see the whole of truth, Haught’s claim that silence is a necessary component of religion, is valid. This, in turn, would make silence a dialogue. God was able to convey something to Job that he would understand only in the realm of silence. So God uses silence (according to The Bible). I suppose that makes silence more active than passive. For what happens in the silence? It is not like the mind stands still. We already know that we are processing incoming data far faster than it is put out. It makes sense how Westerners, in particular, who are raised in an individualistic culture, would find agony in silence. It is, after all, important for us to show the world ‘who we are’. Can we really do that well in silence? I think, perhaps, we can. Silence can certainly be a decision and by the fact that we were making that decision alone, we make it active.
Silence, as an active method, can be used for good and for evil. Silence is effective in demonstrations. “They silently walk out of their jobs’; ‘They silently sat down in front of City Hall’; They silently marched to the site of the massacre’ etc, etc. We have ‘a moment of silence’ to honor those who have died as victims, or as heroes. We have moments of silence to honor our flag.
It is also effective in sending messages that are meant to install respect. I think we may all be able to recall a time where we made our parents so angry that they said nothing to us at all; just gave us ‘the look’. Quite intimidating! It appears that silence, in its active form, may be a very effective tool in communication. But can silence also be evil? Or used for evil? What happens when one wants to send negative messages? We know, for example, about the genocide that is currently taking place in Darfur, yet the nation (US) is staying decidedly silent about the situation. Muslims have been deafeningly silent about the terror attacks in Europe. “Silence is evil”, goes the bumper sticker, “Racism sucks”. Many countries chose silence in response to difficult political tension, and, historically, silence has caused irreparable evil (Holocaust/Pogroms, etc). Silence in many Muslim countries is used as a tool for evil doings. Culturally, in the Middle East, for instance, it is understood that it is a female virtue to be silent before men. The same is true for the American Southern Baptists who get their theory of silence form the Bible and refuse to let women teach men. It is not hard to see how this can be used to keep women underfoot of men, a decidedly unjust and evil purpose. So silence communicates by its very nature. It would seem to me that there is no way that silence can be neutral. In fact, it would appear that silence may be far more effective in communication than active speech. It is so with silence that even if one chooses freely not to communicate, and therefore be silent, one has already sent a message of sorts. The notion “I defer my comment on this matter” or “I chose not to speak’, is a strong message regardless of the context that it is used in. It seems, therefore, that silence is necessary and that it is something that we can get good at; a skill that we can hone. I would also argue that because silence is so active, it is a concept of which we must be aware and take responsibility for. I tend to think that it is immoral and un-virtuous to use silence without awareness of the active nature of it. With all that said; I rest my typing fingers and wait, in silence, for your thoughts on the matter.
All the best,