The Way of Silence

Dianne Aprile - Issaquah, Washington
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, January 17, 2014
Dianne Aprile

Silence is usually defined as the lack of sound. But for Dianne Aprile, silence is not the lack of something; it is something unto itself—something both powerful and necessary in our lives.

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I believe in silence. In its power and its persuasion.

I believe that the act of saying nothing often—no, usually—speaks louder than words ever could.

Monks know this. From Thich Nhat Hanh to Thomas Merton to the Dalai Lama, monks know and understand the deeply felt significance of the unspoken.

Poets know it, too. E. E. Cummings said: Silence is a looking bird. Not a singing bird. A looking bird. A bird observing, noticing, listening. Being. Here. Now.

But so do we ordinary women and men know the profound power of silence. Intuitively, we know it.

Consider the wordless communication between mother and newborn at her breast. Or the tacit tête-à-tête that exists in a hospital room where the dying lies in bed and the friend sits, silent, at her side.

I believe in the authority of silence.

What if governments, rather than reacting with statements and decrees, observed silence—briefly but routinely—at times of crisis? What if we, the citizens, stopped to quietly reflect on the day’s news, rather than jumping into the fray with rushed judgments and verbal crossfire?

Silence has its own eloquence.

Think of the times you dissolved a disagreement by not giving expression to the negative emotions it stirred in you.

I believe silence is a way of affirming life, even in a democracy—which, at its heart, is a public conversation. Let’s not forget: conversation implies alternating patterns of listening and talking—equal parts silence and speech.

Imagine an election campaign where no one spoke unless they had something to say. Where silence was imposed for, oh, a calming few minutes after a debate or a misspoken word—so we could meditate on what was said (and not said) before grumbling hordes of commentators burst forth to tell us what we heard.

Think of silence in music, the pause—that empty moment, a bridge between what came before and what is to come. A moment of awareness of the present, with a nod to the past and an ear turned to the future.

Silence, Mary Oliver says, gives poetry its rhythm and music. So too our lives need silence—patches of nothingness, ellipses of emptiness, to inform the drumbeat of our days. And of our duties.

Think of the heroes and movements that used silence to change the world. Silence, as in the refusal to act in bad faith, to follow immoral orders, to go along with wars and poverty and discrimination and the earth’s destruction.

I believe in silence, in its yearning for wholeness, its desire to close the breach, its urge to unite what’s come asunder.

Silence too often gets a bad rap. It’s not apathy or surrender. It’s not looking the other way.

Likewise, speaking is not necessarily speaking out. Sometimes words get in the way of reconciliation. They convey noise, not knowledge.

Imagine allowing conflict to settle, rather than engaging it—ratcheting up a level, and a level, and a level. Think of the Dalai Lama’s soundless smile, Gandhi’s quiet walk, Martin Luther King’s carefully placed pauses in his stirring orations. Think of anti-war protests where there were songs and speeches, and think of those conducted wholly in silence.

Imagine a nation that listened rather than blogged and posted. A nation that, in times of turmoil, gave itself permission to be still, to not speak, not act—until all that was unspoken was given time and space to make its case, to be taken into account.

Imagine that.

“Silence is never really silent,” the composer John Cage said.

This I believe.

Dianne Aprile is the author and editor of creative nonfiction books. A former journalist and jazz-club co-owner, she is the recipient of fellowships from Kentucky Arts Council, Kentucky Foundation for Women, and Washington state’s Artist Trust. Aprile is a member of the nonfiction faculty of Spalding University’s brief-residency MFA in writing program. Her latest collaborative project, The Book, combines fine-art photographs by Julius Friedman with writers’ texts.

Independently produced by Dan Gediman for This I Believe, Inc.