Hundreds of years from now, when people look back on this time, I think that one of the most important steps forward we will have made is an understanding and honoring of both speech and quiet, voice and silence. Being quiet, now, is considered to be a sign of weakness, of not having anything worth saying, of giving up the space to someone or something that is louder and more important. Quiet, now, is a void to be filled with something worthwhile. Speech, now, is something to be feared in others and is to be controlled lest unfettered truth, freedom, and a demand that all be treated with respect break out. Today’s speech is so often loud and unyielding; a demand, not dialogue.
While being quiet is certainly not something unique to women, we have, in some ways become the Keepers of Quiet. The many laws and rules made over the millennia silencing women attest to how often women have been told not to speak up. Finding our voices, sometimes literally as we learn to speak forcefully and to meet our own needs as well as those of the earth and its plants and animals and future humans, is a task of our generation.
At the same time, today’s women can teach all humans of the future about voice and silence, the positive side of speech and quiet. When speech and quiet become a dialogue to heal, to create bonds, to nurture, they become voice and silence. Voice is what we have when we express the truth, when we speak for those – from planets to babies – who cannot speak for themselves, when we create a vision of what we would like the world to become. Having a voice is not something just for famous poets and politicians and others like them. Every time a woman teaches her children to have respect for others; sits quietly with a friend who is ill or sad; joins in a circle with other women and just witnesses, only giving wanted advice, or tells her story, knowing that others are truly listening; or any of a thousand other acts, she is practicing voice and silence.
In truth, voice and silence are deeply powerful and those who know how to practice it can create great transformation within themselves and in the outside world. Knowing how to use silence is the ability to take the time to listen to and receive even that which does not come by sound. When you are in true silence, you are able to enter into the flow of everything that is happening, not just hearing what you want, but truly participating and comprehending what is happening so that you may then use your voice in a way that can truly make a difference. So often I will see a woman pausing to reflect or listen carefully and someone nagging her to respond to a question or act quickly. But yet, how often have you resolved an argument between two people by saying “He may have said …, but what I think he meant was…” or said “I think if we wait a day, the problem will solve itself, because I’m pretty sure he will…” and you are right? If so, you are a mistress of the power of voice and silence.
Trusting with silence and then truly communicating with voice is the greatest sign of real friendship and something that I see so much more often with women than men whom I know. How often we spend hours, or lifetimes, endlessly talking because we cannot be in silence with one another. When we speak and someone is truly silent, we know that they have entered into the river of what we are saying; they are not just waiting for a turn to speak. When we stop talking for the sake of talking, truths come to our consciousness that we would need to say. To trust a friend to be in silence together means that any truths that emerge can be voiced and discussed. How different the world would be if we could, as nations and peoples, sit in silence with one another until truths emerged.
Like giving birth, practicing voice and silence is creative. Being silent with others or one’s self allows us the space to use our voices to create something new. When we endlessly talk or have to respond to others’ endless talk, all we can do is revisit what has already been made. Silence, even the shortest moments of silence, are really an infinite series of possibilities that need only be coaxed into a unique idea, thought, story, invention, way of being. Part of honoring silence and voice is demanding breaks from the constant chatter so that we may find and use our creativity. How many times do women use the hours they spend alone to make their work unique to themselves, whether it is cooking up some new recipe that has never been eaten before or writing a novel at the kitchen table after working all day and spending the evening putting all the children to bed, or taking up painting at the end of life, after eighty years of employment, housekeeping, and child-raising?
How do we become the teachers of voice and silence? By recognizing that it is special and that our quiet or our way of speaking is not weak or ineffectual, but powerful. By practicing voice and silence and teaching others to do the same, whether our children, our spouses, our co-workers, or others. By demanding that speech and quiet not be used against us or those we care about, but that our voices and silences be honored. By ushering in our future by being our future.