The Power of Silence


 

 

 

I can be pretty verbal. Thirty plus years as a lawyer gives me a well practiced arsenal of words and Socratic debate skills that let me hold my own in the political discussions that surge around my family, friends, and community. I seem to thrive when faced with a point of view that begs for a counter argument, a voice in opposition.

Often, I speak without first asking myself if I should even speak, should I take up the cause. Not every conversation is a call to a debate, or a heated argument worthy of a case before the Supreme Court.

I learn more when I listen, and the proverb that observes we have two ears, but only one mouth, is always worthy of a revisit.

Am I speaking to change someone’s opinion, or am I just arguing for the sake of being a dissenter, knowing that, of course, I am right?

So I often try to practice the art of falling silent, of not engaging in debate. My silence isn’t saying that I agree, either. Let the other person’s words echo and be contemplated in unexpected quiet. Let the speaker’s words and their ideas linger, so that we may truly hear them, and take in what they are saying. Maybe the speaker, in that silence, will hear what they have said, and take the time to really hear themselves.

My silence certainly can’t be taken as agreement, or even acquiescence, in the hypothesis presented by the speaker.

I yield the floor to them, letting them give voice to their thoughts, letting the ideas flow around the room. Perhaps they have never been heard before; perhaps their ideas haven’t been aired.

My ego likes to believe that when the speaker finally stops to hear their own flawed ideas, they will abandon their line of thinking, and agree that I’ve been right all along.

If they are “loaded for bear” and ready for a heated argument, I don’t have to agree to wage battle.   That’s my choice. And, I often don’t learn much if I don my armor and throw my own spears in a heated argument.

There’s the old saying about not learning when your mouth is open.

Thus, I often try to fall silent. My lips don’t move, and I focus on disengaging the clutch between the argumentative brain and my mouth. I keep in eye contact, letting them know I’ve been listening, and I’m still present.

I’m just not engaging in debate. I’m not ramping up the temperature. I’m reacting, just not in the way we’ve been socialized to react.

I’m changing the rules. And, I’m certainly making a point, just not the point that the speaker is expecting.

The interchange gets even sweeter when the speaker asks if I have anything to say, and I don’t say anything. I’m making a point. I’m not invisible, and my silence is not agreement. I’m exercising my power in the conversation, and making a point.

The uncomfortable silence is my friend, a valuable energy in the conversation. I’m expressing myself, by not saying anything. It’s a paradox, one that is often a valuable teaching tool.

What I’m saying, in my silence, is that I hear the other person. But, I don’t have to respond, in the usual way. And, I give them something to think about. Even just letting their words echo back to them, giving them space to actually hear what they’ve been saying, can be a powerful reaction to their words. I’m giving them personal space.

I can think they are being an idiot. I just don’t have to say the words, and go into battle. Instead, I can let them wonder what I am thinking, if they even care about that.

I also don’t have to be the hypocrite, saying I agree even if I don’t, say something benign, or be a diplomat.

From my point of view, it’s a pleasant mystery.

I’m giving them the luxury of contemplation of their own spoken words. How often do we engage in thinking about what we have just said?

They aren’t hearing my approval, and they aren’t getting a verbal response. I’m not adding fuel to their argumentative fires. Instead, I’m letting their flames die down, dropping the temperature, letting things cool.

In that silence, I can grow my disagreement, my dissent. I can also grow the speaker’s own reflection of their own words, and let those words lie exposed to the clarifying sunlight of truth, logic, and social sensibilities.

And, the speaker is now really listening to me. I’m not mouthing words, but I am present, and I am hearing them. My silence is speaking volumes of words. And, what that means is now the puzzle the speaker is trying to solve. The silence is making my argument for me.

I’m not even marshaling my debate tactics and my own thoughts on the subject at hand, except in me being silent. Silent, yet engaged with them, respectfully listening to them, and being present.

 

“I answer her with my silence, understanding the full power of it for the first time. Words are weapons. Weapons are powerful. So are unsaid words. So are unused weapons.”
― Emily MurdochIf You Find Me

 

–Neal Lemery, 9/29/2017

 

A Day Without Time


A Day Without Time

Almost summer, and the early June morning breathes cool on my face. I amble through the remnants of this old ranching town, really more of a wide spot in the road, taking in the ruins of the old store, a few weathered barns and outbuildings, a single house, long past its prime.

Back in the day, 35 people called this place home, and today, only five. Or so the old weathered sign says.

The dance hall now lacks a roof, and the last sale in the mercantile was a mere sixty years distant. Even the newest building, now a wood shed adorned with deer and elk antlers, is getting old. We share a birth year, and have both turned gray.

Down the road a mile, the one room school finished the year last week. There was a community picnic honoring all three of the students. Next year, two are off to boarding school, but there’s two first graders coming in.

At dinner, the innkeeper spoke their names, and of their plans for the future, and the names of the ranches where they were raised. Good people here, I thought, people keeping track of what’s important around here, what’s important in life.

Near perfect silence fills the air, interrupted by some crows, a chattering redwing blackbird, a far off rooster, and mosquitoes buzzing around me, wanting me for their breakfast. In a few minutes, they will chase me back to the hotel at the end of the only side street in this place, for coffee and breakfast with the other travelers who have come here to find their own peace.

The cattle in the field are quiet, busy enjoying the green grass of June, and promises of next week’s move to the higher pastures. So far, it’s been a good grass year, that’s what the locals are saying.

A hundred and twenty years ago, the new hotel opened, welcoming the three times a week stage, travelers and ranchers mingling, much like they do today, around the big tables by the kitchen. The conversation hasn’t changed much, I suspect: the weather, where we’re from, where we are going, the price of cattle, where’s the best birding, the hottest fishing. The coffee’s still strong, the food’s homemade, and the fresh cobbler hot out of the oven is still delicious.

The screen door slams one last time, as we load up the pickup and head out for our day’s adventures, the sun starting its climb into the blue sky of the day. We’ll stop for lunch, overlooking the valley, binoculars up, spotting a few hawks and an eagle catching thermals, silhouetted against the distant mountain still covered with snow.

Ten, maybe twenty, thirty thousand years ago, this valley was an inland sea, waves lapping against that ridge, leaving a beach we can still see, a pebbled ribbon halfway up the hillside. It lies below the rimrock left by a forgotten volcano, stark against the gray and green of the sagebrush and the junipers. Even now, the ancient voices of that era, the Pleistocene age, fill the meadow as we stop to watch the baby quail, and the avocets staking out their nests, pairs of mallards and grebes and tundra swans sailing on the pond, the last remnant of that long ago sea.

Pronghorn sheep, coyotes, and even a few sandhill cranes ready to take flight for their Siberian nesting areas look at us, the newcomers in this land.

“What time is it?” my traveling partner wonders.

I glance at my cell phone, rather than look at where the sun shines in the sky two weeks before its Equinox dance with the earth. I’m so removed from the astronomical rhythms here that I would be clueless without my twenty first century gadgets. The generations before me, hunters in this valley, would think of me as lost, worthless as the tribe goes about its daily tasks.

Our plans for the day don’t seem to require much precision or attention to my digital data. We’re on vacation, out for an adventure, and our only task is to check in for dinner at the only other old hotel around, at the other end of the valley. Our bellies are our timekeepers today, and the sun in the sky will remind us to be on our way. Perhaps, after a few weeks here, I could regain my Pleistocene manhood skills and be welcomed around the evening fire.

We laugh, chuckling over the thought of time, and hours and why that might matter to some folks. That idea of time, it’s important to me, at least modern life tells me. Today, we’re on Pleistocene time, where the migration of the birds, this spring’s snowmelt in the river, June flowers bursting into bloom rule the day.

The birds here, and the mule deer we spot don’t seem to care. My gadgets don’t go that far back, maybe forty thousand years, to Pleistocene time, when every living thing around us, except for the cattle and we tourists in our pickup, was already here, enjoying the early summer morning, in the near silence of this sacred place.

The rest of the day passes in a different rhythm, my cell phone turned off, put away so that I can perhaps gain some feeling of the ancestors, of Pleistocene man, and all the beauty of this quiet place.

We came here searching for something we needed. Some “thing” we thought. We are, after all, Americans, consumers of all those “things”. Yet at the end of the day, what we found instead was the absence of “things”, the trappings and noise of modern life. We discovered the quiet of the summer afternoon, the sight of a swan teaching its goslings to swim, and a pair of baby owls perched on a limb, waiting for their mama’s next hunting lesson.

We lived a day without “breaking news”, and the din of “news feeds” and instant communications.

“Silence” we said.

It was the quiet we wanted, what we had truly come here to find. We spotted soaring vultures, the red flash of a blackbird’s wing, and tuned our ears to the rustle of a snake in drying grass. Our Pleistocene selves came alive again, and we became a part of another time. Our voices quieted, respectful of this great cathedral we’d found in this desert valley, so close to the divine.

–Neal Lemery June 23, 2016

Cold Morning Walk


The essence now in that envelope
between night and dawn,
the eastern sky silent through pure white spectrum,
everywhere crystalline frost, its task to bejewel
fallen leaves and winter twigs,
and share itself with
me.

Now,
stillness—
deep silence,
until my soul opens up and
sees the all that is here
just, and only, now.
I need only
be.

Moving through the silence, only my
white breath moving, only my shoes
beating a faint cadence in this between time,
I become one with this world,
space where everything can be the future
if only I dream it, and move towards it.

—Neal Lemery 12/4/13