Silence is a powerful tool. As a ten year old I owned a dark blue notebook in which I wanted to write a novel called Unbroken Silence, because the words rang so nicely to me. The blue cover of the book seemed to lend itself to such a mysterious title. I had no idea what the novel should be about but I loved the concept.
Silence hasn’t always been my friend since that time. I remember living with someone in the past. In the end we barely spoke. That hurt more than the arguments and the fights, hurt more than slurs slung my way and more than the guilt that came after the ones I slung hers. There was so much pain in our wordlessness, our secrecy, hiding from each other the things that really mattered. Even the things that didn’t matter, in the scheme of things, we hid or lied about or never said. By the end we never spoke at all. I wrote a poem once, or started one: “had I known then/ that a lover’s silence/ hurts more than a stranger’s violence/ then I might have spoken/ broken the quiet/ that we lived in, those days”. It holds true even now- though that phase in my life is over, I regret that we never even really said goodbye.
I remember once I said to her, please don’t lie to me, because I am telling my psychiatrists that I am paranoid- but if you really are lying to me, then that’s not paranoia at all. She said, I know. I don’t lie to you. Some time later it transpired that she had lied- a lot- after all. Lying is a pernicious form of silence, in that it reveals nothing, conceals as much as it can, fogs out the truth. I blame her less than I blame myself for the lies that passed between us, but I will always remember that agony.
Even now, silence from others is a thing I cannot stand. I would even rather a shouting match than the slow drain of words into a gutter from which they can never be retrieved. Silence hurts me. Digital, physical, vocal, even the silence of closed body language. The image of a turned back is something that speaks volumes to me.
As with everything, it’s about striking a balance. From what I have experienced in the past, I have a fear of being hurt by an ongoing refusal to speak. Yet I know that silence can be a valuable thing. I was brought up believing that old saying: “if you can’t say anything nice then don’t say anything at all”. Though I would almost prefer someone said something nasty to saying nothing at all, I recognise that my urge to hear everything is born of past experience rather than common sense. I know there are things I would probably rather not hear, and to force their vocalisation would be stupid. Silence can be the kindest and wisest thing to “say” when you know that what you’re biting back is more painful than silence is frustrating.
There are other types of silence. Ones I find tolerable or even welcome. I find quiet in the funniest places. On a noisy tube ride home, I find the inner silence that I need. Running along the pavement of the high road, with the jabbering of people at bus stops, I locate peace. Silence within myself is something I crave, as much as I loathe the silences between people. When I am well, and alone does not equal lonely or drilled by the angry thoughts in my brain, I am safe in my own company. Safe in the silence that stems purely from being alone. I know many people are the same. So, though I’ve given silence a bit of a battering, I recognise and appreciate its value and its potential beauty.
“Awkward” silences in conversation don’t bother me like they used to. I think if you can ride them out they become easier. They fall into place and if you let that awkwardness go, they become part of your natural pattern. With my customers I try to leave adequate pauses, pauses to breathe, pauses to speak where speaking might be hard. At those times I feel my quiet is appreciated, helps, in the end, to facilitate dialogue. Silence aids speech and I value it for that reason. Not the silence of a turned back, a shocked friend, an angry lover, but the silence of peacefulness. The silence of listening to another person. It can’t be underestimated, that space. I know because it has been used on me. I have appreciated the lack of pressure to fill gaps. I have appreciated unspoken acceptance.
Silence is a multifaceted thing. It means so many things at once. Sometimes, though we analyse it, it doesn’t even mean anything at all…
What does silence mean to you?