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There are many kinds of silence. Try them

For many people, a silent person in their midst is a cause for concern. Why is he quiet? Why does she not say anything? What’s going on in that head? Why not just come out with it? Quiet people make them queasy. Or they dismiss the silent ones as having nothing meaningful to say.

Perhaps we should revisit Paul Goodman, a forgotten writer and psychiatrist (thank you Maria Popova for bringing him to my attention recently). ‘Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world’, Goodman wrote in Speaking And Language, ‘and there are kinds and grades of each.’

Goodman described no fewer than nine kinds of silence, only three of which should cause any concern. Those three are: dumb silence which comes from apathy or lack of involvement, a kind of waking slumber; baffled silence, where we fail to grasp something and have no response; and, paradoxically, noisy silence – where we resent what is going on and are responding loudly in our own heads, but show a studied sullenness to the world outside.

As against these three, Goodman described, almost poetically, six other types of silence which we would all do well to cultivate in our lives. Let me describe them in turn.

First, there is sober silence; a quietude that recognises a particular situation as requiring solemnity and dignity. One does not keep chattering away on religious occasions or in the presence of grief. Some occasions demand respect through silence.

Second, there is the silence of awareness. This is the hush of a person deep in observation or contemplation, ‘pasturing the soul’ in Goodman’s evocative phrase. Someone exercising this type of silence is rapt in the process of creating new and meaningful thoughts.

A third: alive silence, where we are alert and attentive, perceiving what is going on sharply, not wishing to confuse ourselves with our own words. Such a silence is not a muteness; we are quiet because we need to be. We are paying acute attention.

There are more. Fourth on the list is musical silence, which means we are absorbed in activity, something which commands and compels us to focus and concentrate on the task at hand, where spoken words would only shatter the tranquility of the work and scatter our concentration.

Fifthly, there is the silence of listening: we are quiet simply because someone else is speaking, and we will help them not by interrupting prematurely, but by hearing them in full and contributing with clarity only when they are done.

And lastly, there is the silence of peaceful accord where we are simply at peace, either in the presence of others or in communion with the mysteries of the cosmos. This is the serenity that comes from harmony; we don’t speak because there is nothing that need be said that would add anything of meaning.

There you are. The good reasons for being silent outnumber the troubling ones by two to one. Just one mouth but two ears, as the old adage goes.

Those of you of a quiet disposition, take heart. If you are silent because you are confused or resentful, do something about it. Speaking may help the situation. But do not feel compelled to speak just because the people around you expect you to. If you are quiet for good reason, be true to your quietude. If you are tranquil in your contemplation or your absorption, or simply because you are at peace, be happy in your state.

Those who are perpetually speaking, perhaps it is time to pause. It may be in your nature to natter, and the act of talking things out may actually aid your mental processes. Nonetheless, there are times you should consider the option of saying nothing. Because of respect for the circumstances, or because words are unnecessary. Because it is not your time or your place to speak. Because silence may actually help the situation. Because in the end we all have to fall silent, and it is not a bad thing to get used to.

Speaking is part of what it means to be human, and spontaneous conversation is a very necessary part of our lives. We need to hear many voices, and we also need our own voice to be heard. But if everyone is talking, no one is listening. Know when it is time make yourself heard; and when it is best to silence yourself in contemplation of something bigger.

(Sunday Nation, 29 October 2017)

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