Perhaps because I grew up in a large family that lived in a small house, or perhaps because I seem to gravitate towards extraverted, loquacious people for partners and friends, I have made finding silence a priority throughout most of my life. As a child in that large family, I went off into the surrounding woods or dived into books to enjoy silence; as an adult, I have used various strategies to ensure a regular period of silence, sometimes rising early before other members of the household were awake, sometimes having a dedicated space in my home where I could close the door and not be interrupted. However I managed it, I knew that silent time, time without interaction or distraction, was vital for my spiritual and emotional well-being.
My search for silence has grown steadily challenged by the movement in our culture towards ever more interaction, ever more distraction, and a pressure to respond quickly with words to whatever we see or hear. My Facebook feed comes with the continual expectation that I will at least hit “like/dislike” so that all can know I saw the latest post and—even more important—I had something to say about it, even if all I said was that I liked or hated it. Twitter challenges me to similarly respond immediately, to make a comment on whatever the last comment might have been by whoever last commented. Smartphones not only encourage but almost require ongoing interaction, so that even a walk with the dog or a stroll through the park is no longer a time to be silent.
I am not persuaded that our revved up responsiveness is a uniformly good thing. That we leap into action when disaster strikes somewhere probably does mean relief comes sooner to those afflicted. But is my immediate response, with a “like” or a comment, an improvement over what poet Kahlil Gibran envisioned as “spaces in your togetherness”? Are there spaces anywhere in our togetherness anymore, or have we reached a point of feeling so unbearably anxious whenever silence rises around us that we need to jump into that silence with some sort of noise?
While anyone, anytime, may need the response of another as simple reassurance that s/he is not alone, the reactivity of our culture and its intrusion into even the smallest spaces of silence mean that we risk losing all awareness of the richness of silence, the kinds of insight silence can bring, the sense of mysterious presence that we can only notice when we immerse ourselves in silence. As we transition from being closed inside for the winter to having open windows and spending more time outdoors in the spring, I wish for all of us Gibran’s spaces in our togetherness, spaces that will be silent. So much waits for us inside those spaces.