The Sound of Silence

contemplate

The girl in the picture is my friend J (I'll call her Jen). Last week, Jen and I met up for a conversation and mini photoshoot. Incidentally, the photoshoot ended with me stepping in some goose, uh, byproduct, with my bare foot—I'm still slightly traumatized, but even that couldn't overshadow the wonderfulness of the time we spent together. Between Jen's out-of-town university studies and ministry work, we don't get to see each other very often, but when I do meet up with her, I come away from our conversation challenged and inspired... she's one of the humblest, kindest, and most honest people I know.

During our latest meeting, we spent a lot of time talking about silence. We talked about how nice it is to have friends with whom we can share non-awkward pauses. How much better it is to let somebody's words sink in, to slowly turn them over in your mind and ponder them, instead of shooting off the obligatory, thoughtless response. And we spent some time in silence, sorting through our thoughts and savouring all of the little sounds that it amplified... the soft click of a librarian's keyboard, the footsteps brushing across the carpet, the quiet conversations of other visitors.

I'm not a confident talker.

During the first 17 years of my life, for various reasons, I had nearly no face-to-face or phone contact with my friends outside of school. Basically, my only chance to talk with people my age was during recess (which ended in grade 6), before and after classes, during lunches (many of which I spent at home anyway), and during class (but I was a good kid and didn't do that as often as I should have).

Nevertheless, I still found people who were willing to listen to me, share secrets with me, and encourage me, even if I couldn't see them beyond school grounds. Jen was one of those people—during her senior year, she spent almost every lunch hour and 8-minute between-class break with me, offering all of her free time to walk with me through everything that I was facing at the time (and, to top it off, she wrote me nice long emails every few weeks). So between the Internet, friends like Jen, and the loads of time that I spent with my parents, I can't say I lacked social contact when I was younger... sure, I missed out on the sleepovers and late-night phonecalls, but I had some of the best relationships anyone could dream of. Still, that aspect of my life affected me in one big way: it made me extremely insecure about speaking.

Over the past two years, a few changes in my life situation have given me many more opportunities to see people face-to-face. And while it's been wonderful to share secrets over coffee or sit together in the sun, it's also taken me a while to fight down the feeling of panic over not knowing what to say, or not being able to say what I want. To stop rewinding conversations in my head for days and beating myself up over a bad joke or lame remark. To make small talk with strangers (I'm so glad I've gotten better at that. The other day, I had a great chat with a man on the bus who was undergoing radiation for cancer. I can never get over what a priviledge it is when a complete stranger chooses to share his heart with me).

Last year, I had a pretty hard time learning to wade in the deeper end of the social world. It was kind of like playing badminton in high school. I was a total mess at badminton—I'd blindly swing around the racket, without any aim or strategy, in hopes that it would eventually hit the ball. And that's kind of how I talked to people last year: as soon as the conversation came barreling my way, I'd desperately shoot off a reply. Sometimes it came out mangled, sometimes exaggerated, sometimes flattering, sometimes curt; occasionally, it hit the mark of sincerity and honesty. But either way, all I really focused on was myself and what I needed to say.

With practice, I learned to be more diligent, more vulnerable, more caring in the way I spoke. But I still can't shake one big insecurity of mine: I still don't like being silent with someone. Being able to say something—anything, no matter how artless—still gives me confidence, a sense of power. I hate admitting that I don't know what to say. I hate 'wasting' someone else's time as I rummage through my thoughts. I hate not having the answers.

In Judaism, there's a custom called sitting shiva. When someone dies, friends visit the grieving family and spend a few hours sitting together in silence. Unless the mourner says something, no words are exchanged; even "hello" goes unspoken. The mourner and comforter sit together, reflecting, waiting, listening.

I remember once, during a really rough week in high school, I got up at lunch and declared to my locker bay, "Who wants to come with me and sit in front of a window and think?" I was half-joking and half-desperate. I needed space; I needed time to grieve the 'old normal' that had been replaced with a bewildering new reality. I needed to enjoy the company of another without feeling that I had to entertain or impress or explain anything to them. So a friend of mine came along and we sat in front of a big window in the hallway for half an hour, staring into the sky.

As much as I feel threatened, sometimes, by silence, I have to admit that it can also be incredibly comforting. Sometimes, presence speaks louder than words, and silence is the most sincere response you can give. It can be nice to know that you have space to wonder and dream in someone's presence. It can be nice to walk together through a sunset in quiet awe. It can be nice to listen.

Do you feel comfortable being silent around others?


Another video that looks into the spiritual side of silence.

3 comments:

Lucy said...

What! You too? I thought I was the only one! :)

So much of this resonates with me!

I recently finished reading Introverts in the Church, which encourages introverts (I don't really liked being labeled as such, but for simplicity's sake) to serve as they are, while also giving practical suggestions on how to best use their gifts to relate to others. Good read :)

Oksana said...

Ooh, that sounds good. I'll have to give that one a read. :) Thanks!

Bradi Wells said...

I don't have much to add, just my own new thoughts to take away... but did you know you have a magnificent way with words? On the off chance you aren't aware, I thought you should know. <3


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I'm Oksana—Communication major, shutterbug, occasional blogger, incessant doodler, graphic design geek, and writer of sentimental prose. I am quite content to spend an afternoon with a pencil, a few blank Moleskine pages, and a playlist of indie folk. I love musical theatre, black-&-white movies, and Eastern European illustration. Conversations with strangers make my day. When it rains, I make a beeline for my mug of green tea and stack of 19th-century fiction. I'm vegetarian about 98% of the time. I'm extremely awkward and rather nerdy. I love the sea. My name means 'hosanna' and I'm having the time of my life living to praise the One who set me free.

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