Tuesday 4 December 2018

The Sounds of Silence

“I wish people didn’t think silence was awkward, just enjoy it. Not every space has to be filled with words.” (Anon)

That quotation was shared recently on Facebook by a good friend of mine. I posted a response (“True, silence can be awkward, of course, but it can be lovely.”) and went on with my day. But somehow, I kept coming back to the topic of silence, and to the idea of there being more than just these two kinds, comfortable and awkward.

I hope we all know the first of these; the gentle sense of being with someone and having no need for words. I say gentle, but at times it can come upon us like a wave: the simple yet so rare awareness of sharing the moment without needing to explain or talk it away.

There is a beautiful scene near the start of the submarine movie Crimson Tide. Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman) is talking to his executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington), as they head out of port watching the sunset.

“Bravo, Hunter.”


“You knew to shut up and enjoy the view. Most eggheads want to talk it away. Your stock just went up a couple of points.”

On the other side of the coin, of course, is the tense, cut-the-air-with-a-knife silence we have probably all experienced at some time in our lives, whether in our own relationships or as a witness, perhaps in our parental home. These silences can last for minutes, or hours, or longer. If occasional or of short duration they can give the relationship a useful pause. Not everything needs to be addressed in the moment. Things can then pick up again on the other side. But, if left unaddressed for long, these kinds of silence can take root.

Then there is the distinction between silence vs. background sounds. My friend Roiben who shared the silence quotation on Facebook is severely deaf. The nature of the sound landscape in which she finds herself can dramatically affect her ability to hear and engage with people and what is going on around her.

I find absolute silence uncomfortable. I write and think best, for example, in a cafĂ© or coffee shop with plenty of ambient sound. Likewise, I cannot easily fall asleep without a tv or radio on in the background. Silence allows my mind to wander and distract me from falling asleep. If there is something quiet on the tv or radio – dialogue rather than music or action movies (disaster documentaries work really well for me!) – my mind has something to focus on, from which it can gently disengage and ease into sleep. Other friends prefer quiet or silence to relax. Fran is one of them. She can meditate in silence, for example, whereas I prefer a soundtrack of some kind, whether words or music.

There is yet another kind of silence, which occurs as a pause or gap in the connection between two people. Whatever its nature, every relationship has its natural frequency and intensity when it comes to connection. It may change from time to time but it is a function of the two people involved. Expecting the same level of contact and conversation from everyone we hold dear is a recipe for frustration and hurt.

Some people manage to have friendships where they scarcely hear from each other for months, even years, and are then able to pick up again as though nothing has changed. Perhaps you have friendships of that kind. I can’t do this! I have friends – I would still call them that – I haven’t heard from in any meaningful sense for years, but I would find it very difficult to pick up these relationships again and move forward. Why? Because we each would have changed so much in the intervening time that it would be like starting all over again. Actually, it would be harder than starting out anew because there would be so much “old stuff” to unlearn and set aside. We are all changing all the time! (If you are not changing, why not?)

I do much better where there is on-going contact; be that in person, on the phone, or online in chat or on social media. I’m in touch with several friends on a more or less daily basis. There are a few where it’s more like weekly; very few where we connect less frequently than that. In that way, we keep in step with each other’s lives, news, feelings, joys and issues. Not all the connections are the same, of course. Some are rich and full, others less intense yet no less valuable or valued.

I recently attended a Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) Awareness workshop. As part of that exercise I started to work with some of my triggers. Triggers are things that can affect our wellbeing and stability in ways that are – on the surface at least – out of proportion to the reality of what has actually happened. My biggest trigger is where I sense a (real or imagined) lessening in the frequency or intensity of the connection I have with someone close to me. Maybe they are not chatting as much or as often, or seem less engaged than usual.

There might be any number of reasons for this. Perhaps they are busy, or unwell. Maybe they have things going on for them of which I am unaware. Perhaps they simply want to step back for a while from connecting with people in general, or from me in particular. These are all perfectly valid reasons and whilst I might not like it I can respect and understand them. However, my triggered response is a powerful sense of rejection and abandonment out of all proportion to whatever is actually happening. (I have no idea where this comes from, it occurred for the first time maybe a dozen years ago.) It can feel overwhelming to me and can be devastating to the relationship unless it is acknowledged and allowed to pass safely.

I am working on this issue at the moment; learning to accept and to even appreciate the spaces between meetings, messages or phone calls, or times where things appear to change for a time. I am experimenting with allowing my feelings to be there without jumping to (mostly erroneous) conclusions or assuming the relationship is in jeopardy and thus putting it in jeopardy by responding inappropriately, or demanding more from the other person than they are able or willing to provide.

I am grateful beyond words (pun intended) for the people who allow me to explore my relationship with silence in this way; those who allow me to be myself and to be honest about my hang-ups and issues; who hold space for me to work with my stuff, as I hold space for them to work with theirs. Because, ultimately, there are things that cannot be explained or communicated in words. There are things that can only be approached and appreciated in the spaces we allow into our lives. As my friend Roiben puts it:

“Some silence is comforting, to just sit with someone and know you are in company that gets you.”

And (whisper it) that is a beautiful thing.


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