The Power of Collective Silence


                                                by Neal Lemery

(Published in the Tillamook County Pioneer, 5/24/22)

            I found myself at a local café, having a late breakfast, with about a dozen other community members who had the same idea.  At a nearby table, a family was enjoying themselves, highlighted by the smiles and laughter of their sweet six-month-old baby.

            As babies are wont to do, laughter turned into cries and wails, filling the busy café with sounds of distress. Mom quickly responded by picking up the baby and cuddling it, as good parents do.

            The man at the counter turned towards the family, a look of disgust and anger on his face.

            “You need to take him outside and give him something to cry about.  He needs a good spanking for acting that way,” he said, his booming voice reverberating throughout the room.

            In an instant, the room fell into a deep and pregnant silence.  Every eye turned towards the angry man, every face stony and silent.  Nothing was said, the only sound now the quiet murmurs of the now-again content baby.  

            My mind whirled, part of me wanting to stand up and give the man a piece of my mind, the idiocy of violence, the long-lasting impact of what we euphemistically call “corporal punishment,” and the rudeness of strangers interjecting their values on a young family who were simply out for a good time with their child. 

            Slapping, spanking, the mentality of “giving you something to cry about”, pushed a lot of my emotional buttons, bringing back bad memories in my own life, both personal and professional.  I well knew the impact of that kind of thinking on family members and friends, and how those traumatic experiences often profoundly impact us for the rest of our lives.  

            No one said a word, even the cook stopping her work at the stove, as we all glared at the man, until he finally turned back in his seat and took a sip of his coffee.  A long minute passed, until the baby laughed a little and we all resumed our lives, until we all realized something important was being said in the silence.  

            It was a good minute, a minute of both rebuke for a really bad idea and a time to reflect on how we should deal with kids, what they need from the rest of us. 

It gave me pause to reflect on whether I should have launched into my lecture to the man about the evils of violence and the messages that sends to kids.  The silence gave me time to again realize that my well-rehearsed rant on using violence and anger to raise a child would have likely fallen on deaf ears, that the man wouldn’t be changing his thinking because of what I was going to tell him. I was reminded of the power of collective silence, and I felt that power reverberate through the café. 

            If he was going to change his thinking, that would come at a different time, in a different place, when he was ready to really hear what he had said, and how he looks at the world, and how he learns about his community’s values. 

            Instead, the community at that café spoke a bigger message, in that big, beautiful collective silence of disapproval and disgust.  Mere words wouldn’t have been nearly as effective as our group effort to turn our heads towards the man, and simply be silent.  

            Conversations resumed, and the man kept being ignored.  The waitress didn’t refill his coffee, and slapped down his check beside his empty cup.  He left his money and slipped out the door, not daring to utter another word.  

            I often overestimate the value of a well-turned phrase, or what I might think is a polished, professional writing on a particular issue.  Sometimes, it is in the silence that we truly hear the words of wisdom, the message we want to send, the message we need to hear.


Purging Violence In My Life

I think it is time for a break.
I spent a day this weekend at an environmental summit, in the presence of the Dalai Lama, along with 10,000 other people, people who cared enough about their spiritual lives and humankind’s impact on the environment to spend a gorgeous spring day inside, listening and absorbing wisdom and spirituality not only from the spiritual leader of Tibet, but also other wise and thought-provoking leaders.
I came away invigorated, stimulated by the sheer simplicity of their wisdom, and their ideas to change how we live, and what we are here on this planet to accomplish.
A week earlier, I had gone to the movies with my wife, sitting through a showing of the latest superhero blockbuster, nearly two hours of loud explosions, terrorism, weapons gadgetry, and death. Oh, the good guys “won” in the end, and all was right with the world, and all the violence and death was just “fantasy”.
I’m not sure my mind could really tell the difference, and during the next few days, I felt disoriented, out of sorts, not in tune with who I strive to be, and how I want to live my life.
Now, the contrast from watching the movie and listening to an inspiring talk about compassion and one’s purpose in life, and how we can serve others, churns inside of me. The two experiences, a week apart, have left me feeling incongruent, conflicted, not easily reconciled.
I visit our local youth prison quite a bit, mentoring young men who are locked up for six or seven years, men who have worked on their addictions, their anger, their rage, and the abuse they’ve experienced, and inflicted on others, men who are trying to move on with their lives, trying to find some peace, and some purpose for their rejuvenated, rehabilitated lives.
Violence and rage hasn’t suited them very well, and they are paying the price. Our society has come up with the simplistic solution of locking them up in prison, with a mandatory prison term, and no incentive to earn time off for good behavior, for truly changing their lives. Such thinking does its share in contributing to anger and rage, and feeling separated, distanced from the community.
I suppose there is the argument that society is being protected, and they are being punished. Yet, there are a lot of costs that we are all paying, and will pay in the future, for such an approach to dealing with kids who’ve been neglected, abused, growing up without parents, in households ravaged by addiction and violence and indifference.
Does the possibility of seven years in prison really become a factor in the twisted insanity of drugs, neglect, abuse, and sexuality in a fourteen year old, whose brain has yet to achieve any rational degree of processing and controlling emotion? Somehow, deterrence doesn’t seem to be an effective argument for mandatory prison time for these man children, not in this highly sexualized and drug promoting culture.
A friend of mine often says, “what we permit, we promote.”
I often wonder what we could accomplish in their lives, if the $200 plus dollars a day taxpayers spend to keep each one of these young men in prison had been spent early on in their lives, so that we invested in their childhood, and offered hope, and opportunity, and emotional support, that they may not have ended up here, watching the calendar, a bit fearful of how they are going to cope with being out of prison, how they are going to manage their lives.
Not having a father in their lives is the norm with the young men I visit, and they feel physically abandoned, emotionally cut off, flawed. That hunger eats into them, into their souls.
During family visiting time on Mothers’ Day, only eight youth, out of the seventy five imprisoned there, were visited by their families. As I visited with two young men, hearing more about their lives, their hopes, and their dreams, and hopefully instilling a little emotional support and healthy values as we sipped coffee and played a game, I looked at the empty tables, thinking of families not being there for their sons.
And, that is a form of violence in our world, not being there, not being involved in the lives of young men.
Such violence is not that far removed from the senseless Boston Marathon bombings, or the gang-related shootings in New Orleans during their Mothers’ Day parade, shootings that injured nineteen people out for a day with their families, celebrating a bit of parenting, a bit of maternal love and nurturance.
There is a simple reason we have gangs in our country. They offer the feeling of family, the belonging that young men crave.
And that blockbuster “super hero” movie, it remains the most popular movie on Mothers’ Day weekend.
I can understand why all the ticket-holders for the super hero movie may not be as eager to spend their time listening to an elderly Tibetan monk share his thoughts about human compassion, and how we can change our intentions and our attitudes, and thereby change how we live, and how our community functions. After all, there aren’t any robotic fantasy gadgets and special effects, no exploding bombs and crashing planes, and bullet defying armor to keep up on the edge of our seats. There aren’t any computer animated soundtracks, and a plot where the good guy destroys the bad guys in a burst of light, and color, and noise, loud enough to shake my seat.
Instead, there is a calm, thoughtful voice, and a thoughtful soul-feeding discussion about who we really are, and what we can truly be capable of, if only we use our brains and our hearts.
I’m going to spend my time now a bit differently, more of thinking about compassion, more about living my real values, and a lot less time in the movie theatre, or keeping up with the latest headline news shows.

Neal Lemery, April 13, 2013