“No person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow.” – Alice Walker
Silence is powerful. As a child interrogated by adults I kept quiet, believing it was more useful to say nothing than to give away a secret in the face of authority. Sometimes I would forget to say something important, hoping that my silence would keep me out of trouble.
I mean, who really needed to know that the reason I came home dripping wet that one time was because I rode my bike into a lake … on purpose?
As an adult, silence still holds an amazing amount of power. If I don’t feel like announcing all those times I’ve been pulled over while driving (always receiving a ticket, mind you), I can choose not to.
Since becoming an adult I’ve also learned the powerful nuances of silence in conversation, especially for those of us living in Western societies. Silence could signal a lull in a lively talk, or it could be a powerful demonstration of acquiescence, withdrawal, anger, surprise, boredom or disappointment – to name but a few emotions represented by our chosen voicelessness. I remember vividly the conversations I’ve started and stopped with silence.
Indeed, silence can be the most powerful scream. You need not look farther than the scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” when Tippi Hedren and company exit their claustrophobic caged-in house, only to find a sea of birds waiting silently, threateningly.
A moment of silence can be a ritual to mourn a tragic event shared by many. It can also signal a time for reflection when used in prayer. Even in music silence is important. I can’t listen to any song with more than 150 beats per minute because, without silence, it sounds like static on the radio. Noise/Static clutters the mind and will never promote rest.
The silence I like is the silence I choose, not the silence imposed on me through the use of fear, intimidation or systematic discrimination. Silence under these conditions is rooted in the denial of personhood, the denial of the speakers’ capacity to deliberate and choose, and the denial of the listeners’ capacity to accept perspective and experience different than their own.
Because each new perspective teaches me about myself and the world around me, I understand that I hurt myself by silencing someone else’s experience. Even when that experience isn’t something I want to hear, listening still teaches me how I react when faced with the uncomfortable realities of other people’s lives.
And acknowledging those experiences creates room for questions to be asked and answered, provided you’re really interested in listening. And therein lies another power of silence. If we quiet ourselves and listen to what others are experiencing, we begin to rid ourselves of the notion that someone’s experience is less valid than our own, and in doing so we give others the humanity we wish in return.
Silence is powerful, indeed.