The Quality of Silence

Last night I reread, in part, Sarah Maitland’s A Book of Silence, which made a deep impression when I read it three years ago. Kathleen Jamie captures the richness of Maitland’s book exceptionally well.

“Silence has its own weather. In silence, one’s mental states loom large and require constant vigilance,” writes Jamie. I think it is precisely that fear that has led to a depreciation of silence. Perhaps,  in the West, we never appreciated silence much in the first place.  Greek philosopher Pythagoras the Samian studied with both the Egyptians and East Indians, cultures where silence and listening where highly valued concepts.  Pythagorean initiates were required to be silent for five years.

In Book of Silence, Maitland writes, “Incessant noise covers up the thinness of relationships as well as making silence appear dangerous and threatening. The nervous chatter that is produced to cover even brief periods of silence within a group is one manifestation of this.” Speech is deemed the distinguishing aspect of humans, silence considered suspicious. Choosing silence as a deliberate choice is thought of as masked, secretive, or labelled pejoratively as ‘shyness’. Sarah Cain  in Quiet wrote, “If you’re an introvert, you also know that the bias against quiet can cause deep psychic pain.”

Western culture values extraversion, what Sarah Cain termed the Extrovert Ideal – “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.” (Jungian labels like ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’ are useful in so far as they offer a conversational short-cut, they are widely understood and conceptually predate the field of psychology.)

Choosing silence is also expressing a preference for listening. I find that using silence to prepare my thoughts is essential preparation for speaking. Listening is an undervalued creative activity. (I’ve always loved that ‘silent’ and ‘listen’ contain the same letters.) Maitland writes in A Book of Silence, “Just as if you leave the door of the public bathes open the steam escapes and their virtue is lost, so the virtue of a person who talks a lot escapes through the door of the voice. That is why silence is a good thing; nothing less than the mother of wise thoughts.”

[This is a substantially updated post, originally from June 2009.]