Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Listen to the Silences

Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, one of the greatest musicians to ever walk the planet, once said that “In music, silence is more important than sound.”

I’d broaden that advice out a bit:  in life, silence is more important than the sound and fury of constant chatter in this age of instant communication.  Lately, I’ve lost the ability to hear that silence.  This is, at least in part, due to the obsessive roar of my own engines churning up that vacant space in the universe.  I need to send a message to the battlefield of everyday life:  shut up and listen!

A while back, I wrote up a list of thirteen theses statements about how to live.  My hope was that the statements would offer me the opportunity to reflect on how I comport myself each day.  The list was written somewhere in the past and dutifully filed away only to be buried by more pressing matters, more words, words, words cascading and falling through my life.  Number one on this list was to listen to the silences.  I remember I got it from a poster I used to hang in my classroom each year:  “Listen to the silences that you are unaware of.”  It bothered me that such a great saying ended in a preposition, so I dropped that part when I typed up my list.  I enjoyed the paradox:  how can you hear the absence of sound?  If you are unaware of the silence, how do you know it is there?  We know that sounds will always exist, but silence is, well, silent.  Wouldn’t it take special equipment to detect the absence of sound?  Can the absence of a clue be a clue?  I realized that to detect silence requires a stillness in the core of ourselves.  It means appreciating, indeed, living in, the space between.

In the classroom, sound can be an assault:  students coming in from a noisy recess; a teacher giving a lecture; groups of students engaged in a lively activity.  With my students, I must listen to what they are not saying as much as what they are saying.  Their individual narratives come out in words, but also in silence.  Often I can tell by how students look at each other whether or not they are on task.  Guilt is visible on faces if I just watch the group dynamic for a few seconds.  When we are discussing something as a class, my questions often hang in the air.  This desire on my part to elicit a response could result in no response out of shame or embarrassment or lack of understanding.  Very few people are secure enough in their person to say “I don’t get it.”  They are afraid of ridicule, of being exposed as frauds.  The voices in their heads are screaming, “Don’t give yourself away.”  As the teacher, I need to ignore the frantic feeling that no one is connecting because it is so silent.  I need to read the body language and try to find a way to blow open the doors to communication and get them talking.  In lieu of that, I need to absorb and appreciate my students not speaking.

In recognition of their uncomfortable silence, it might take one more question, or several questions, to get them to open up.  It might take a story from me to make them feel comfortable enough to contribute their own narratives.  But until that happens, it is not a good feeling to be standing in front of a class in uncomfortable, even painful silence.  I really have trouble with those silences.  I have to fight not to fill them with my own words, to tell too many stories.  I have to remind myself that thought takes silence.  In short, silence is critical to thinking and to our lives.  We must avoid what Shakespeare labeled idiot talk “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  As teachers, as human beings living in an age of cacophony, we must become comfortable with the silences.  Relish them. Feel them.

How in the world do we do this?

Could it be as simple as saying nothing whenever possible?  Can we teach with silence?  Can we register our dissent or approval by not speaking?  Is it like the Buddhist idea that the highest form of action is inaction?

I believe the answer to these questions is a resounding (not silent) yes, but it takes an inordinate amount of self-control because as a species, language is so important in the conveyance of ideas, thoughts, and dreams.  It is no accident that the tongue, inch by inch, is the strongest muscle in the human body.

But greater minds know the worth of silence.

“A word is worth one coin; silence, two.”  The Talmud.

The Bible?  “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise…”  Proverbs 17:28.  “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.”  Proverbs 18:13.

The Koran?  “Speak a good word or remain silent.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.:  “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”  Is he chastising friends for not speaking up against the enemies?

Confucius:  “Silence is a true friend who never betrays.”

Lao Tzu:  “Silence is a source of great strength.”

It is clear, and a cliché, that silence is golden.  From someone who makes his living from words, I need to be mindful of the value of silence.  Perhaps that is why it is first on my list of thirteen theses.  They were drafted in no particular order and for no particular pressing reason that I can remember now.  I found them in an undated file in a stack of folders on a corner of my desk.  Remember the cascade of words, words, words?  The list was typed but I could not find the document anywhere on my computer.  The list is undated, the context of the drafting unknown.

Whatever the reason I wrote these thirteen down, I recognize their importance in the here and now.  So, periodically, I will take one and explore it in a little essay.  As for number one, I will listen to the silences and the wisdom they contain.  I will be aware of them, these silences, and I will welcome them.


  1. Let me add one more: "be still and know that I am God" Psalm 46. I teach four classes a day three days a week and sometimes find myself thinking "just shut the f**k up!"

  2. A Listening Thing.

    Glad to hear you, Paul.

  3. Some Hasidic sects raise their sons in silence. "The Chose" by Chaim Potok addresses this in the context of filial responsibility.

  4. I'm a huge fan of Chaim Potok's novel, The Chosen, and have taught it many times. He does indeed speak of silence and evokes its long tradition in Judaism. Excellent book. Thanks for commenting.


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