I am a linguist who loves literature and who is fascinated by science. I quantify randomness. I paint. I travel in a power wheelchair, hoping to capture the ordinary.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Silence and hope

It would seem as [...] though we are surrounded by myriads of emaciated words. They limp about, wounded by their lack of silence, and wounding others as far as they go. Words that only come from other words are lonely,  but  also  hard  and  aggressive.  Words  not  coming  from  silence  are  automatic,  obstinate,  and desperate – and could be called orphans.  “The tongue we speak today is no longer a mother-tongue but rather an orphaned tongue.” (Picard 1948: 41) Indeed, we are surrounded by sounds severed from silence, as opposed to sounds saturated with silence. (Cilliers, 2008)

Recently I made the decision to leave social networking sites. I found that I was offering my energy to a void, where the limits to true human connection were simply too much. Sherry Turkle, in her NYT article "Flight from Conversation," made a strong argument for face-to-face connection, for being present in the silences--silences that cannot be transmitted or lived on media such as Facebook: "Most of all, we need to remember — in between texts and e-mails and Facebook posts — to listen to one another, even to the boring bits, because it is often in unedited moments, moments in which we hesitate and stutter and go silent, that we reveal ourselves to one another."

I have decided, as my Tricycle newsletter this morning advised, to attempt to abandon futile endeavors. It seems to me that part of the attraction of social networks is that they can offer some sort of tangible evidence that others find us worthy (at least enough to "friend" us and maybe click on something we posted).

As somebody with a body that is perceived as so vastly different from others', I have spent much of my lifetime trying to prove my worth, trying to convince others who could not relate to me that I really was just like them, trying to help them see me, accept me, find a way to surmount the insurmountable beliefs about value and body, find true friendship in my company.
Harlequin woman

I am certainly not alone in this. Disabled blogger Carly Findlay writes, "Maybe I'm doing a metaphorical forward roll every day. To prove that I can do. To prove that I'm more than how I look. And to break down the assumptions people make about me and others with chronic illnesses and disabilities."

How much energy am I willing to spend to make myself human enough in another's eyes? Could this ever really lead to a mutually fulfilling relationship? It is a futile endeavor. I am not advising giving up hope. But what is of little value is not worth our time.

I seek the rare treasure, the silent understanding. I will do no song and dance. Connection is scarce, but that is okay. It is worth the effort, worth the wait.

What is scarce is not lost. Sometimes even the smallest spark of hope may be enough for the spirit. The whooping cranes are a lesson in placing one's heart in what matters. They are slowly recovering from the edge of extinction, with a population that has risen from a mere 15 birds to 600 with the help of Operation Migration and other groups. (If you are interested and able, you can contribute to the cause.)

Video streaming by Ustream

In human interaction, for me, the quiet spaces are my whooping crane. In these moments, there is a deep knowing and a presence. There is no question of worthiness, no painted mask, no juggling of truths and lies. I tend to this silence.

Professor of Theology at Stellenbosch University J. H. Cillers has written of the spiritual value of silence in our lives in his article, "Silence is Golden: Liturgy beyond the Edge of Language." I quote him here at some length:
Silence could of course be understood in many ways [...]. It may mean different things to different people. We know that there are different kinds of silence. The silence of sitting on the porch and watching as the setting sun winks her last light at you. The indescribable silence when moving from the house in which you stayed for thirty years, and you walk through the empty rooms for a last time, and the walls whisper the sum total of experiences that you had in this space and you know, deeper than words can express: there is a time to come, and a time to go. Or the strange silence that you experience in a graveyard, when the cooing of the doves in the trees deepens the silence and you know: our years pass by like a fleeting thought...

Willard differentiates between solitude - “being out of human contact, being alone, and being so for lengthy periods of time”- and silence (1998: 357). He concludes: “Silence means to escape from sounds, noises, other than the gentle ones of nature. But it also means not talking, and the effects of not talking on our soul are different from those of simple quietness.” (1998: 357)

Although silence is part and parcel of our genetical make-up (cf. further on), it is apparently also something that needs to be learned, a lost art that must be retrieved. The fact of the matter is that we normally react on an “epidermal” (skin-deep) level, automatically, following the usual stimuli of life. But in and through silence we escape the patterns of epidermal responses, with their consequences. This is however something that we find particularly hard to do. For us, the very idea of doing nothing could be absolutely terrifying – especially in our achievement-driven society. Indeed, it seems as if one of the greatest of spiritual attainments of humanity could be the capacity to do nothing. Because we do so much, we have so little of real value.
Togetherness in silence, a gaze, a touch, a shared view of the warm light hitting the trees--these alone tell me that we, imperfect and strange beings that we are, are more than enough.

A couple embrace in a park with snowy trees seen around, with the air temperature at about minus 8 degrees Celsius (17.6 degrees Fahrenheit), in Russia's southern city of Stavropol, on December 24, 2012. (Reuters/Eduard Korniyenko).
Cilliers, J. H. 2008. Silence is Golden: Liturgy beyond the Edge of Language. Paper delivered at the annual meeting of the Society for Practical Theology in South Africa, 14-16 January 2008, UNISA, Pretoria.
Picard, M. 1948. The world of silence. London: The Harvill Press. 
Willard, D 1998. The divine conspiracy. Rediscovering our hidden life in God. Harper: San Francisco.

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