On Silence, and All the Ways I’ve Used It

[26 April 2019]

Two years ago, instead of giving up sweets or swearing or social media for Lent, I decided to try something different. I decided to give up any form of digital media that was only going to entertain me. In other words, Game Boys and TV on my commute and headphones were out; movie nights and dance parties were in.

Lent itself is a time of silence. It is a season without the normal liturgical “alleluias.” In some churches, Lent is a time without instrumentation or even, occasionally, music. In the space created by these absences, we are better poised to consider the mystery of Christ and ourselves in relation thereto.

My thought process, then, was something like this: Lent is (in part) about giving something up in order to create space and cultivate awareness for something else; therefore, what better way to get in the spirit of things than by creating a lot of room for silence? But I had never considered using the Lenten fast as an extended time of personal silence. The thought was daunting, to say the least.

Silence and I have had a rocky relationship for as long as I can remember. My friends and family joke, not without merit, that it’s a rare thing to find me sitting still – not talking on the phone, not listening to my latest J-Pop obsession, not at the very least pacing back and forth trying to figure out what I’m going to do next. I don’t like to sit still; I’m a nervous talker (my mom says I got it from grandma), or at least a nervous listener – if people aren’t talking to me or with me or at least laughing at me, I start to panic. Am I doing something wrong? What are you thinking? Are you thinking about me? Are you upset at me? Did I do something wrong? If I didn’t do something wrong, why aren’t you smiling at me? What do I need to do to get your eyes on me?

I first discovered this my first year at university. I took an entire class dedicated to the (gay!) Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. My professor was an experiential educator: he believed that students learned best by doing. Hopkins was a Jesuit and consequently was expected to maintain extended periods of silence. Therefore, my professor, educator extraordinaire that he was, thought it would be a good idea for us to take our own times of silence – a minimum of 24 hours – and see what insights it brought into our understanding of Hopkins and his work.

When my professor gave us this assignment, I remember my stomach dropped. 24 hours of silence? At minimum? Is this even possible? I began to sink into my seat, wondering if it was too late to withdraw from the class (unfortunately, it was). Meanwhile, a buzz was going around the classroom. “24 hours of silence?” my excited classmates started whispering amongst themselves. “This is the best assignment I’ve ever had,” someone next to me said to his friend. I looked around in a mixture of awe and horror. I distinctly remember asking myself, “Are all English majors introverts?”

This silence was to be absolutely free of any and all distractions: no friends, no music, no TV – for 24 hours, it all had to go. ENG 237 was determined to be the ruin of me.

As I sat in my friends’ room, loaded up with enough PB&Js to survive an apocalypse and secretly hoping they’d come back from spring break early so I’d have an excuse to break my temporary vow of silence, I kept the lights off and left the blinds closed. I wasn’t even miserable – I was beyond miserable. I was utterly devastated.

Up to this point, my time at uni had been marked by a frantic, frenetic flurry of activity. I was everywhere at all once, doing everything at all once, trying to meet everyone and get involved in everything and maintain grades and work and keep up with my family and on and on and on until I would crash every night with this sinking, gnawing feeling that I wasn’t doing enough and would wake up every morning instantly wired and determined to make up for all the time I had wasted by sleeping. I believed that a moment without action was a moment lost – that somehow, if I stopped doing, I would lose out on something significant (what exactly that significant thing was a bit vague and elusive, but the fear was overpowering). But the darkest part of that mindset told me that my relationships needed constant, moment-by-moment maintenance; I believed that if I didn’t spend every moment possible sustaining and investing in my relationships, they would fail.

And so I sat down in the dark room with no light and no, wholly convinced that I was ruining my chances for any opportunities and that I was destroying all the relationships I had worked so hard to build – all this for the sake of an assignment.

And so I cried. I cried and I cried and I cried.

In the end, I couldn’t do it. I lasted for about 8 hours (14.5 if you include my sleeping from the night before) before I broke my silence.

But I had learned something.

When my silence was over, I walked down the hall into a friend’s room. He was sitting on the couch, playing video games, probably exactly where I had left him approximately 14.5 hours before. He looked at me, mumbled some sort of a greeting, and passed me a controller. A couple other guys walked in, we mumbled some sort of greeting to them, and passed them controllers. We played video games, ate cheese puffs, talked, laughed, and went on with our days. And nothing out of the ordinary happened. And this was, perhaps, the most extraordinary revelation for me: I didn’t need to spend my life filling a perceived void in order to make my life feel meaningful. My friends didn’t ask me where I’d be or what I’d been up to the past few hours; they didn’t walk away from me; they were not upset at me; I didn’t miss out on anything crucial; no incredibly, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities sprung upon my friend group while I was away; to be frank, they hadn’t even noticed I was absent. Silence taught me an invaluable lesson: I wasn’t nearly as important as I thought I was.

I’ve since spent the next few years taming that monster, with some seasons being more successful than others. I’ve tried to fall in love with silence and I’ve learned a lot about it.

Silence takes many forms. I’ve come to see this more clearly over the years.

I have known silence to be a form of hiding. Deceptively masking yourself, your true thoughts and intentions, by choosing to remain quiet and allowing others to think untruths. I am guilty of this.

I have known silence to be a form of evasion. Fearfully running from a person or a situation you felt you couldn’t handle, hoping that, if you just faded out, you might be forgotten and your nagging guilt would somehow disappear, too. I am guilty of this.

I have known silence to be a weapon. Obstinately, defiantly ignoring someone you care about, even to their face, because you want to make a point or hurt them or make them feel how you feel. I am guilty of this.

A few years ago, this is all I knew of silence: the dark side, the side of hurt and fear and pain, the things you cannot speak for fear of bringing them into the light.

But, as I have lived my life, I have come to see another side to silence.

Another lap around the prayer labyrinth, releasing and surrendering your thoughts to God.
A night on a grassy hilltop: denim jackets and autumn skies and watching the stars.
Comfortable silence with piña coladas shared amongst good friends who have nothing to hide and nothing to prove.
The hush after a piece is performed just before the applause.
Lying next to the one you love – not knowing if he’s awake or asleep, but simply feeling his chest rise and fall with each breath.

I have experienced all this.

Just as I have known silence to wound, I have also known silence to be an agent of healing, of reconciliation, of peace; to speak words deeper and louder and truer than any voice could proclaim. Silence has taught me something new: I am so much more important than I ever thought I could be. Silence has given me the space to sit with myself and to sit with others – bringing our whole selves to the table and being able to see each other for who we are.

I have learned that silence is the point of infinite potential, where everything is possible because anything could be in the next moment. Silence is the point where you see again, perhaps for first time, that everything you have is right in front of you. I learned, or have started to learn, that – not every moment needs to be filled. Just as opportunities and relationships are made in the doing, so also are they cultivated, transformed, refined, and purified in the silence.

Needless to say, my experience with Lent two years ago was challenging and sweet. And so, this year, I decided to repeat it, to similar effect. And now we find ourselves on the Resurrection side of Lent, where our 40-some-odd days of silence have ended in wild cheers and a joyous shout and we have all gone back to our sweets and swearing and social media with renewed vigour, appreciation, and gusto. And, once the Easter “alleluias” have passed and the initial spark begins to fade, we settle once more into a rhythm of silence and speaking, silence and speaking, silence and speaking – watching the world around us grow and shift and shape and mend as we are swept up along with it into the grand project of renewal and restoration of all things.

30 responses to “On Silence, and All the Ways I’ve Used It”

  1. WTG avatar

    Loved your piece. You have beautiful insights throughout, lovely alliterations, vulnerability, wisdom. Your experience with silence, your initial craving of never wanting to face it, to embracing extended silence, is a wonderful character arc. I really enjoyed it.

    1. Nathan avatar

      Thank you for your kind words. I’m glad you found it enjoyable 🙂

    2. Nathan avatar

      And thank you for stopping by!

      1. WTG avatar

        I spotted your comment on my post; glad you did. Led me to your blog.

        1. Nathan avatar

          And I’m glad you visited!!

  2. Stevie Turner avatar

    What a great post. I love silence, and love our quiet house. My granddaughter does too when she visits, as their TV is always on whether they’re watching it or not.

    1. Nathan avatar

      Thank you! I grew up in a family of five kids, and going to grandma and grandpa’s house was one of my absolutely favourite times. The peace and quiet was so soothing.

      1. Stevie Turner avatar

        My granddaughter loves our house. Silence is good for the soul.

        1. Nathan avatar

          That’s so sweet 🙂 I thoroughly agree.

  3. Stevie Turner avatar

    Reblogged this on Stevie Turner and commented:
    This post gained my interest, as since I’ve grown older I have come to love silence. It allows me to think uninterrupted thoughts, and also to de-stress. Whenever we visit our sons’ noisy households, Sam and I are always pleased to return to our lovely quiet house.

    1. Nathan avatar

      Thank you so much for the reblog! 🙂

      1. Stevie Turner avatar
    1. Nathan avatar

      Thank you so much!

  4. joylennick avatar

    I so enjoyed your beautifully written piece Nathan.I too was a ‘rush around, chatty – keen to befriend and be everywhere, rush, hurry, rush’…sort of person, But, now I’m MUCH older I have to take it easier, so certainly think more and have quieter moments. As I love reading, music and particularly writing, that’s no bad thing. I still love chatting,as I find people fascinating but appreciate the welcome ‘noise’ of quiet too. Cheers.

    1. Nathan avatar

      Thank you so much for your comment! Isn’t it funny how we can grow and change and yet still remain ourselves? Thanks for stopping by and I hope to see you again!

  5. Jacsun avatar

    A very fine learning experience of silence. I must have a generous measure of silence & solitude every day of my life––it is regenerative.

    1. Nathan avatar

      Thank you! Yes, it certainly is! Always striving to find the balance!

  6. cathysrealcountrygardencom avatar

    Silence is so important and so powerful. We exhaust our mind with noise and activity because we are afraid of listening to ourselves, to nature and to God. I enjoyed reading this. Stay still and keep listening.

    1. Nathan avatar

      I completely agree! What comes up in the quiet is so important, though!

  7. thepoetryliner avatar

    In India we call this Maun Vrat. It is a self-cleansing ritual. To not converse in the mind, that is, avoidance of thoughts, which is the inner noise, is true silence. I enjoyed reading your piece. Love.

    1. Nathan avatar

      That is a great practice! I try to do that sort of thing regularly. Have you found it to be helpful for you?

  8. thepoetryliner avatar

    Haven’t tried it so far. Am compulsively garrulous! 😀

    1. Nathan avatar

      Haha I hear you there!

  9. dianarenee avatar

    I love this. I’ve been thinking a lot about silence. Have learned to love/cultivate it in recent years, not because I wanted to. But it does grow on you after you stop fighting it, right?

    1. Nathan AM Smith avatar

      Indeed, it does! The stopping fighting it part is the difficult part! And I still have my relapses!

  10. Kate's Bookshelf avatar

    I am not a quiet person. In general I can talk someone’s ear off ( I have actually done this on a date cause I thought filling up the silence was what I needed to do), but ever since I started working in a place where there is constant noise all the time (a professional kitchen is not quiet in the least, nor is a popular restaurant) I have found I crave silence on a larger scale. Okay, yes, I like having music going in general, but I like listening to zero talking. I’m bombarded all the time by noise and I’ve learned to let it wash over me like a wave. I work in the front of my restaurant where the noise reaches maximum level, and sometimes it can bother me or make me jerk. However, most of the time I find myself putting myself in a bubble, separating myself from the din in a way that while it doesn’t take it away, I don’t notice it the same way. Coworkers come out and I can see this look of panic on their faces at the general din, where I’m just sitting back and it all washes over me. I think it’s a state of perspective.
    I could do with more silence in my life that doesn’t even involve music on. I might have to take on more of that. It is rather calming. Days when my parents go off and I have the house to myself, I will find I hardly talk at all. It’s rather refreshing……

    1. Nathan AM Smith avatar

      Totally feel you on that! I had my stint in a kitchen and then as a barista and, when you can get that moment of quiet – wow! What a game changer! It’s amazing how context really shapes who we are and what we need, isn’t it??

  11. Ginny Sassaman avatar

    What a gorgeous piece! Thank you for sharing. Definitely sermon worthy!!

    1. Nathan AM Smith avatar

      Thank you so much! You’re welcome to use it if the need ever strikes 😉

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