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Silence (or Little Did I Know)

May 24, 2011

One Thing I Claim to Understand Better than Others

I am nothing if not enterprising. When I see an opening, I take it. When I see a great set-up for an introduction, I write my Essay-a-Week a few days later. But most of the time, I end up pulling on a push door. Whatever opening I thought was there has flipped itself. I need to find a different way in.

My brilliant plan was to begin with “as I lay here, reclined, typing, willing the stitches in my mouth to dissolve and resolving to leave eating apples to the professionals, I realize that the thing that makes me the happiest about having to have dental surgery was that it gave me a socially acceptable reason not to talk. Until tomorrow, at least, I do not have to say anything. I have been resigned to a self-imposed, respectable silence.”

See, that all sounded so wonderful (okay, passable) when I wrote it, gums still untouched. The next morning, as I lay in the chair, unable to tell my dentist that not all my mouth was frozen, including the part currently with needles in it, I realized that silence sometimes sucks. But I digress. We’ll talk about that at the end.

Though a person can only eat so much ice cream, as I will no doubt find out later on today, silence is something entirely different – suspending and buffering me. In silence, I am removed from everything, able to see more clearly the parts of my world that usually are obscured. The thoughts I have been intentionally avoiding, or meaning to get to, can no longer be ignored. And this is a good thing. I am free to flail, test, reconsider and evaluate without ever exposing myself to the misunderstandings of others.

Silence is safe, but it pushes me to dangerous places, to frontiers I would never have crossed had I known someone else would be listening, expecting a hackneyed translation or lower resolution reproduction of my thoughts.

But it is not only that no one expects me to speak. Silence is bilateral – I do not have to listen either, nodding, blinking as I try to translate words back into thoughts, thinking of what to say next, aiming for seamlessness, settling for bulges and gaps, cycles and ruts instead of banter I always wanted.

For me, silence is freedom, an elevated detachment I cannot experience by any other means. A prompt to think.

And because I am vain (or its almost anagram, naive), I always look at people and assume they are exactly like me – that our thoughts and fears line up, our values align. My world view is so familiar to me that I mostly can’t imagine why it would not be universal. But when it comes to silence, even I realize how silly this is. People aren’t like me, at least not when it comes to our relationship with noise. I know this when I sit with someone so afraid of silence it is painful to not talk, or when I see the sea of headphoned masses on the subway, strains of their music audible even to me.

I will confess that I used to judge these people. I told myself that because I understood the value of silence – which is what I have claimed so far in this essay – that I was somehow better. But, pathologically unable to hold a consistent opinion, I shied away from this conviction – and for good reason. Thinking a little more (in silence, mind you) I realized that my love of silence and their fear of it are rooted in the same appreciation of its power. As much as silence can buffer and protect you, keeping you safe, these bonds can also overtake you.

I feel this when my mouth gums up after days of studying, when words refuse to come out, or come nowhere close to conveying what was so clear in my head. The perspective silence gives me requires distance and detachment. Forging new connections, bridges to other people, becomes more difficult, fraught with error and risk. Sometimes I am simply too far away to try, which only makes it worse. Silence gives you a chance to reflect at the great cost of reducing your ability to express exactly what you have decided, discovered, determined. As much as it can help me to better grasp my world, silence draws me out of reach of others. And as much as I might like to think that I can manage by myself, I shouldn’t. I probably can’t.

So silence is great and it is terrible. But I refuse to retract this essay. Despite the much-needed qualification, I still think I understand the value of silence better than most. Though I am in constant danger of being pulled into its embrace completely, without it I don’t think my noise would matter nearly as much.

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