I learnt the value and power of silence from one of my positively eccentric psychology lecturers.
Here is how I remember his most characteristic signature on entering our lecture hall;
“He enters the classroom, sits down, doesn’t say anything. He looks at us, we look at him. At first, there are a few giggles, but he only shrugs, and eventually a deep silence falls and we begin noticing the smallest sounds, the ventilation radiator humming in the corner of the room, the nasal breathing of one of the students. Some of us are agitated. When is he going to say something? We squirm, check our watches. A few students look out the window, trying to be above it all. This goes on for a good fifteen minutes, before he breaks in with a whisper. ‘What’s happening here?’ he asks. And slowly a discussion begin — as he has wanted all along — about the effect of silence on human relations. Why are we embarrassed by silence? What comfort do we find in all the noise?”
The question got me thinking. Noise lets us ignore our most difficult struggle and our most precious possession: our true and profound selves. Very often, it is painful to face one’s true inner core. It is hard to be absolutely honest with oneself. Shakespeare writes in Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day,” but we often fail in this regard. We fool ourselves, and the noise and distractions of life help us in this effort. Constant external stimuli and occurrences allow us to avoid dealing with our inner being.
When we’re alone in the car, do we immediately reach for the radio? Is it any wonder that talk-show radio is such a booming international business? We are so afraid of silence, so fearful of the opportunity to be with ourselves and penetrate our inner world.
“The vehicle for wisdom is silence” (Ethics of the Fathers, 3:13), as King Solomon tells us, “‘Closing one’s lips makes a person wise” (Proverbs 10:19).
Genuine spiritual heights can only be attained through introspection which only comes by dint of the medium of silence.
Thus Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel says, “All my days I grew up among the wise men, and I have found nothing greater in benefits (for the body and soul) than silence” (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:17).
The next time we’re alone in the car, let’s resist the urge to put on the radio. Instead, let’s take advantage of the quiet time and think deeply about our lives.
We could ask ourselves questions like:
What are my goals in life? Am I on the path to fulfilling them?
Am I trying to improve my character? Do I have a plan for improvement?
Am I a better person today than I was yesterday?
Do I feel connected to God? What have I done today to connect myself to God?
Setting specific times to be alone with ourselves and our thoughts will help us probe our inner world. It is at these times that we pierce our deeper selves and grow in immense ways.
I strongly believe that we can solve most of our struggles for peace and personal development by embracing the value of silence to its utmost advantage.
We can also avoid dramas that are usually thrown to our feet by others through assuming complete neutrality by offering back silence as our answer to the unfolding drama.