I have been operating under the assumption that this is not a luxury, that it is really not too much to ask in life. In a sense, I still feel that way. I think we all need an occasional moment’s rest, a few seconds in which nothing calls our attention, if only to maintain our sanity.
What I have begun to consider in a new light, however, is that while we who yearn for silence in a modernized society must go against the grain to choose it, many others have no choice at all. For better or worse, silence is their lot in life.
An obvious example is anyone suffering injustice around the world. I understand how sanctimonious a comment this might appear to be. Our media can feel over-saturated with calls to action against human rights violations and suppressions of basic freedoms. Encouragement to do something — anything — to feel we are addressing the world’s ills and cruelties sometimes seems to be more for the service of our own consciences than anything else. Furthermore, so much bad news can be so burdensome that it leaves one numb.
But the fact of the matter remains that for too many people, silence is not the way to enlightenment but rather an inescapable way of life.
For the year and a half I served as a Jesuit Volunteer in Peru, I was haltingly aware of some of the challenges facing my students. Though it was impossible not to know that domestic violence, alcohol abuse, poverty and other social ills were serious problems, they were not problems discussed in a particularly open way. There is no question the United States also must grapple with these kinds of issues, but given how fresh Peru looked to my outsider eyes, they felt more striking while I was abroad.
I tried to open myself to my students who seemed to be struggling in class, telling them I was always prepared should they need someone to listen. Usually, they nodded and walked away. I’m sure they felt more comfortable sharing their difficulties with friends, siblings … probably anyone besides their gringo teacher.
Anything I offer as an explanation for their silence is speculation, but the truth remains: besides the cases where I knew a student’s parents personally or had gained special insights from them or their homeroom teachers, it was hard to know to what kinds of homes these kids were returning each day. I could only guess with the bits of information I gleaned.
Shortly after my return from Peru, I learned that one of my students, a lovely young girl, had been found dead under frighteningly suspicious circumstances. Without going into too many details about a case that has yet to be officially solved, school officials suspected she had been working as a domestic servant in a house that was not her own and that some kind of disagreement with the home’s patriarch might have led to her death.
Of course, the quiet I am seeking in my daily meditations is totally, unequivocally incomparable to such a tragedy. It would be offensive to suggest otherwise. But in dedicating a stretch of time each day to quiet with little more of an agenda than that, the mind begins to wander to questions of the very nature of silence, whatever its specific forms and complexities may be. What is the value of silence when it is a trap for some and transcendent for others?
In addition to the silence forced by oppression, there is the silence forced by illness. My grandfather, who passed away earlier this week, was familiar with this sort of quiet. For roughly 15 years, he suffered from Parkinson’s disease, which steadily took his freedom to move, speak and perform other tasks with ease. He was a gentleman in the truest sense of the word, and he was not one to complain about what his health condition was taking from him. But it was hard not to spend time with him and wonder how frustrating it must be to have something to say and only be able to say it through serious, physical labor.
As I said, these kinds of quiet are far removed from the stillness I pine for in my daily meditations. But when something like silence becomes the object of one’s desire, I think it is wise to ponder how this goal might mean something completely different to others. If nothing else, such consideration might allow us to gain a deeper understanding of the countless nuances in the lives of those around us. I am grateful for what silence has done and is doing for me, but I also feel called to bear in mind that its beauty comes when it is chosen from a place of freedom.