The Wisdom of the Silent Sunset

In order to make articles and columns available to readers here, I am reprinting them as posts. This was first published in Mused: The Bella Online Literary Review in Spring, 2009.

A few days ago, I looked out of my study window and witnessed a stunning sunset. The plum and rose radiance, the stark streaks of black clouds across the sky, the gentleness of the horizon slipping into the treetops were all aspects of its beauty, but it was the sunset´s silence that made it wise. Even though I could hear cars on the streets and the television downstairs, the sunset evoked within me a symphony of stillness that brought me out of my everyday concerns and into a place where the essences of life speak and a deeper voice that goes beyond everyday communication.

As the sunset’s beauty overtook me, I wanted to live in the wisdom of that silence forever, to understand it, and become part of it until I could carry it with me every day. I yearned for that silence.

We humans used to understand the wisdom of silence. It was holy to take a vow of silence, sometimes for decades at a time. When we walked in the woods, we could hear a single leaf rustling because no airplanes, highways, or cell phones masked the small noises that make us aware of the quiet around us. The music we listened to had pauses and hushed moments that were as eloquent as the notes and chords.

Now I do not know if I have any moments of absolute silence. Even if no one is talking, I can still hear the buzz of the refrigerator and the frazzled energy of the radio next door. Only with very special friends can I sit without speaking for even a few minutes without feeling awkward. When I walk in the door, I automatically turn on the TV or CD player just for a little background noise.

We women, especially, have had silence taken from us by having a false and vicious version of it forced on us. From the time, I was small, teachers and the media taught me, along with disapproving stares of strangers that proper young women spoke quietly and let others speak first. If I had something to say in a discussion, I waited to see if someone else would say it and, only when no one did would I venture to say my thought or opinion. I never mastered the art of interrupting and shouting over others. Mostly, I learned to shush myself, to tell myself that I had nothing of importance to say and that no one would listen to me anyway.

Therefore, silence became the barrier to overcome. It turned into the absence of the ability to stand up for myself. Silence was an enemy and a sign of my weakness. But yet, all this time, true silence has been waiting, for the proper time to return to my life, to be my ally as I regain my true, inner wisdom that promises hope and progress for not only ourselves, but all those whose lives we touch as well.

The silence of the sunset reached down and touched me, reminding me of the moments when I had instinctively called upon it. I had come to an age when family members and friends began to experience serious illness and death. At first, I would desperately seek the right thing to say to comfort my loved ones and convey my sorrow. I felt myself to be a failure when the perfect words never came and so I did not say anything.

It was then that I realized that sometimes only silence could bridge time and space, life and death, and in a way that enables me to reach those on a journey to a place where words have no meaning. By being silent, but being present in the few moments I had, I was able to say, “I love you” in a way that is more powerful than words, even than death.

In true silence, the sunset said, you can hear all those voices that are not carried on the air, but in our own hearts and minds. We remember people long forgotten, but whose lives hold messages to be heeded now. Our own intuition gives us insights that we knew all along, but which had been drowned out in the clamor of our busy lives. An idea will appear before us like a seed puff on the wind, and we can follow it to places never imagined, until we end up exactly where we are supposed to be, and have the answer to what is troubling us.

When we bring the fruits of silence to our lives, we then have the wisdom of women who know that they believe in what they are saying and doing. We will not be forced into responding to demands or taunts and, when not answered, these dissipate into the air like smoke. When we are silent, we give silence as a gift to others, too, who then are able to be silent, too, and listen to their own inner voices until they, too, know what to do.

The silence of the sunset does not last all night, but sinks down below the horizon and then the noises of the night begin: the rustling of nocturnal creatures in the grass, the buzz of insects, even the inaudible humming of the planets and stars spinning in the sky that we cannot hear but which somehow we can still sense. Therefore sunset says, when you have been to the place of silence, you will re-emerge and your voice will be heard and heeded, even if only by you. You will know what it is to be in the center of your own world, still and strong, observing all that goes on around you and choosing what you will say and when you will say it.

This is how you will carry the wisdom of silence with you, sunset says. Whenever you need to, you will re-enter that center and remember what it is to stand there, listening to your own self and directing what happens around you with your words and the actions that go with them.

As I watched, the sunset faded into blackness and the stars came out, along with a crescent moon, all shining upon me. I knew that the sunset was traveling elsewhere, bestowing its gifts on someone to the west of me. Since we live on a globe, we are all west of one another, so maybe that person was you. Did you hear it?

The Dance of Voice and Silence

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.