Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Opportunity in Silence


"He who does not understand your silence will probably not understand your words."
- Elbert Hubbard

I was sitting in a local coffee shop a few days ago reading a book and I saw an older couple enter and order lunch.  They took a seat at the window, positioned so that they would both be looking out at the street. My first thought was “Uh oh, that’s a marriage in trouble. Why on earth would a couple sit facing outward, away from each other, rather than inward (towards each other) unless they had nothing to say to each other?” I continued to observe them as they sat for sometime in silence.  The husband got up to get their meal when it was ready and the wife proceeded to pour them both a cup of tea. Wordlessly, looking out the window, they ate their lunch. Tea was refilled, empty plates were put aside, and again, barely a word was spoken between the two.  By now, my mind was fabricating a variety of scenarios about the kind of life the two must lead; loveless, the absence of joy, emptiness.  And then I saw them look at each other as they rose to leave.  The husband smiled at his wife and lovingly helped her to put on her jacket.  He put his hand on the small of her back as they walked out of the coffee shop and towards their car. 

That’s when I caught myself.  I realized that I had been comparing their muted interaction as a couple to the animated and vocal way my husband and I interact ( a relatively young relationship compared to the older couple), and had unconsciously attached positive value to discussion versus silence because it was not something I regularly practiced in my relationship.  Only a month earlier, a meditation course I attended emphasized the importance of silence in helping to create space in our lives, to developing some detachment in our experience through reflection.  The course concluded with an entire day of silence, encouraging students to remain in a state of contemplation. I found the act very powerful, experiencing a full gamut of emotions throughout the day that had been tucked away; peace, sadness, fear, confusion, joy, contentment, happiness, and gratitude.  At the end of it I felt spiritually rejuvenated and had more energy than if I had gone to the gym for a workout. 

This past Remembrance Day had me thinking about the many different meanings and possibilities of silence.  When the day came, I was on the road with a friend heading towards Manitoulin Island, and passed several ceremonies in progress.  Ironically enough, I had been battling a sinus infection and was experiencing my own type of silence because of plugged ears.   The inherent meaning behind silence observed on this day is respect for those who made (and continue to make) our freedom possible.  The Royal British Legion came up with an interesting way to commemorate Remembrance Day this year  to support their annual Poppy Appeal.  They released a single into the UK charts titled 2 Minute Silence. The single is literally recorded silence. The video features the likes of Mark Ronson, Bob Hoskins, and Corporal Simon Brown, who was shot in the face by a sniper in Iraq. All of the proceeds from the single will go towards furthering the Royal British Legion’s work in supporting serving and ex-Service personnel and their families.


It was Viktor Frankl who said that “We have the power to determine what any experience means to us.”  The truth is that I had no idea whether or not that couple was truly a happy, maybe they weren’t even a couple, but  they reminded me about the downside of judgement and jumping to conclusions; the missed opportunity to learn.  

Silence can be powerful or debilitating; it just depends on our willingness to embrace it.

When was the last time you consciously observed silence?  Where in your life do you have an opportunity to practice the act of silence?  Where has silence served you in your life?

"Silence between friends says that one's presence is enough." — Dr. Jack Hyles

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