Silence Is a Gift

Abraham WeitzmanDecember 7, 2020SilenceInterfaith Connections

Artwork by Arina Stetsiuk, age 12

If you want to have a conversation, there needs to be space for each person to communicate their ideas and feelings.

Without that room, conversations become lectures or a cacophony of dominant voices. For a true exchange to occur, silence is required. The voices of the vulnerable must be heard. It is also necessary to have quiet to hear your own thoughts without distractions. We all need room to experiment with ideas, trying out theories in the safe space of our minds.

I am actually always silent with the exception of an occasional vocalization and rhythmic computer clicks. As a nonverbal person using assistive technology, my communication is slower than the speed of most conversations. I need my friends and family to be quiet sometimes so I can be part of the discussion. This is not easy for them. Normally my house is full of people, talking over each other and laughing raucously. Sometimes my mom reminds people to wait for my answer, while I write with my six switch array. My siblings are used to the pattern of pauses, but not everyone understands how important it is for me.

Silence requires patience and restraint. You need to put the needs of someone else before your own. The rewards have no bounds. Listening without preparing to interrupt saves mental energy for thinking deeply about what you are hearing. It demands that you purposefully focus your mind on the other person, even setting aside opinions and judgments that may spontaneously form, not just listening to the words they are saying but their tone, rhythm, and pitch. In this way you can hear what they feel. Understanding feelings gives context to ideas.

When my sister speaks to me, I try to listen to more than her statements. I want to know how she feels and what is important to her. My silence gives her room to express ideas without fear of correction. I give her room to think out loud. She is passionate about Norse mythology. She tells me stories about Odin, Hel, Loki, and Freya, connecting the myths with our world. Her philosophy is synthesized, and I learn about her ideas. My silence is productive.

The "uncomfortable silence" often prompts people to speak, even when they have nothing to say. The need to "fill the air" derives from avoiding feelings in favor of factoids or gossip. The phrases, "Did you see?" or "Did you hear?" rarely start a meaningful conversation. I prefer to sit with my thoughts and observe the world around me. When I am not communicating, I can attune myself to the environment I am in, whether I am in the forest or on the street.

One of my favorite places is the view of the Hudson River from Olana. Olana was the home of a famous painter from the Hudson River School, Frederic Church. He began as a painter and he designed the landscape at Olana in the same way he created paintings. When I am there overlooking the Hudson Valley, with the Catskills beyond, I am right where he stood years ago. It is possible, if no one is speaking, to fully immerse myself and imagine Mr. Church is next to me. The lack of sounds, other than buzzing insects, facilitates a transcendence that would be otherwise impossible.

The crowd in Times Square has a different kind of buzzing. It is full of people rushing to work and tourists from all over the world admiring the center of the universe. There is a vibration to the atmosphere that you can feel best by being still and taking it all in. The police on horses, drummer at his five gallon bucket, women dressed as Minnie Mouse become a post-modern symphony, occupying a shared unconscious of the silent observer.

Silence is an emptiness, a space, an opening that leaves room for other voices. It may be room for introverts to work up the courage to address the group. It can give people an opportunity to address their oppressor and demand justice. Potential allies can find common ground through listening. In being quiet ourselves, we can hear.

People of color must have a safe space and time dedicated to them in predominantly white schools. I would not know that by talking. I learned that by being quiet. My school has an organization, the Diverse Network of Action (DNA), that meets about a variety of issues from financial literacy to the murder of George Floyd. Our leaders are Black and Latinx. By making the leadership non-white, the students have role models for expressing feelings and ideas. When we meet, we use one mic. This means one person talking without interruption. We know they have completed their thoughts when there is silence. This has meant my friends have a chance to recount their life experiences and explain how that impacts their needs. I know more in listening until the silence.

Silence is a gift to ourselves and those around us. During times of silence, we can pay attention to our surroundings, seeing the landscape and feeling the wind. We can think deeply without distraction, since speech uses resources we can reallocate to other mental activities. We can listen closely to people we care about and those we want to know better. In silence we find independence and community.

Abraham Weitzman is a 13-year-old New Yorker who loves Mel Brooks, Edgar Allen Poe, and Sherlock Holmes. He enjoys traveling and staying home.