On Silence…

The great Persian poet, Rumi, wrote: “Silence is the language of God. All else is poor translation.”

Gandhi, the great Indian activist and peace-maker, said: “It is better in prayer to have a heart without words, than words without a heart.”

Lao Tzu, the great ancient Chinese philosopher and author of the Tao Te Ching, wrote: “Silence is a source of great strength.” He also wrote: “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.”

The great Buddha taught: “Small channels flow noisily; the great flow silent. Whatever’s not full makes noise. Whatever is full is quiet.”

The great Jesus Christ, when being questioned prior to his crucifixion, kept silent, continuing a tradition he kept throughout his life to speak not when prompted, but only when the impact of words is greater than the impact of silence.

Given the timelines I’m looking at, I realize that all of these examples are of historic men, so let’s take a look at the words of a great woman close to us both in time and heart:

“We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon, and the sun, how they move in silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls.” – Mother Teresa

All of these great individuals made a tremendous impact on the collective human memory because they knew when and how to speak. They were not perpetually silent, of course. If they were, the rest of the world that communicates with words would have missed the message entirely. However, they did not speak for the sheer sake of putting a word in.

Silence is powerful. When observing silently, you will find yourself being prompted repeatedly to “use your interpersonal skills” and to “say something”. In the modern world, the silence is generally misunderstood as weakness, lack of communication, shyness or fear. Sometimes, it is even mistaken as arrogance. This is ironic, given that some of the greatest leaders in human history practiced silence as they sought out enlightenment.

Silence is powerful. Words can rarely cover the expanse of emotions we feel, and our minds race a mile a minute with ideas that we often can’t explain. We can look at someone and declare a thousand truths without uttering a single word. The practiced eye will simply see the message.

But… we live in a very loud world. God help you if you are not a babbling extrovert. Better entirely fake… than quiet. Right?

Once, when I was a teenager, I was spending time with two other girls and I suppose I was relatively quiet. I was closer to my nature back then. One of the girls teased me about it: “do you have nothing to say? I can’t even tell what you think. Do you have no opinion? Why are you so quiet?” The other girl laughed and said: “be careful when you don’t understand someone because they seem too quiet. It’s the quiet ones who have all the answers because, instead of trying to superimpose their instinctive opinions, they sit back and observe. You only don’t like it because it makes you vulnerable.” Yeah. She was a smart kid.

And so began a series of events that helped me realize that those who insist that I should communicate as they do are simply uncomfortable. It isn’t a judgment on their part, but rather an appeal to be let in.

The funny thing is… only those who have already been let in can even see the silence. We all have a dozen and one faces. It’s the silent one that’s real.

Very few of us can say we understand the balance between silence and speech like Rumi, Gandhi, Lao Tzu, Buddha, Jesus, and Mother Teresa… although we might like to pretend to. I am at least a few centuries away from the fingertips of those great ones. But there is one thing that we can all understand: expression through speech is limited by the boundaries of language and culture, and human souls are too complex to wrap neatly in a blanket of words.

When someone approaches you with a word on the lips and retreats without uttering it, know then that they are trying to express something beyond the constraints of language and, if you don’t understand, be understanding. And when someone sits in silence and you believe they should have something to say, wait for it. When they do choose to speak, the words will be worth their weight in gold.

And when you do not know what to say, or believe you absolutely know what to say – either way, practice silence first and then see what happens.

And remember… we design our own luck!


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