by tim middleton
There is a saying that the test of how well we know someone is whether we can sit in the same room as the person and not feel uncomfortable by any silence.
This was put to the test a few years ago at a police roadblock when Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) officials challenged a motorist for not having a licence for the radio in the car. Apart from the fact that the radio did not work (it being an imported car where the password for the radio was not given), the driver explained that he preferred not to listen to music or radio at all on long journeys. The official was disbelieving. “How can anyone not listen to music? What do you do all the time?” This incident in turn can be backed up by seeing the amount of people that walk or cycle or even run with earphones on.
Equally many households must have music or television turned on, even if no one is in the room. It would seem that many people are uncomfortable with silence.
That fact can be problematic as it has been said that, “In seeking wisdom, the first step is silence; the second, listening; the third, remembering; the fourth, practicing; the fifth, teaching others.” Coach Bob Walsh has used it in sporting terms (and attributing them to the way the highly-successful All Blacks rugby team operate) by saying that the “First stage of learning is silence; the second stage of learning is listening”. Silence is golden, is first prize! Interestingly, in the famous passage in the Old Testament about there being a time for everything, we read that there is “a time to keep silence and a time to speak” (in that order — silence first!) So, in very simple terms, if we want to learn anything we first must shut up! We must not allow any words out of our mouths nor allow anything in through our ears! We must first not allow ourselves to speak and then we must not allow our minds to be distracted by music, talk or any contrived noise. We have to learn to be silent to allow ourselves the best chance to learn.
There are a number of good and indeed scientific reasons and facts to support this approach. Silence has been found to stimulate brain growth. It can relieve tension; it is more “relaxing” for the body and brain than listening to music. Silence throughout the day enhances sleep at night. It can help us to focus better and equally enables greater creativity. Silence helps not only ourselves, but others, too— after all, we do well to realise that not everyone wants (or needs) to hear our opinion. It can help us avoid criticism, for as we are often reminded (with the quotation being variously attributed to Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain and Samuel Johnson), “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” Silence is first prize; silence should be first response.
So what then do we do in this uncomfortable silence? Of course, most folk find silence the time to sleep, but not a lot of learning will come from that! More seriously, silence will allow us to hear what we do not otherwise hear, not least the sound of silence — when did we last hear birds singing? It will allow us the opportunity to observe things and sounds that we would not normally see or hear. More than that, it allows us the chance to think (a major point the driver made to the ZBC official) and in doing so release further creativity and originality. Furthermore, it allows wonderful time to reflect on what has been said, seen, done and felt. Finally, it allows us to meditate on all that is heard, to chew on it, to think it through for a fuller understanding. Silence is powerful!
So in closing, the reader may now take a few more minutes, in silence, to reflect on some of these quotations about silence: “The easiest way to save face is to keep the lower half shut” [Anon] — that is a lesson worth learning, for sure. “If something goes without saying, let it.” [Anon] “Don’t speak unless you can improve on the silence.” [Spanish proverb]. “Those who are usually silent most often actually say something when they speak.” [Anon] “Silence teaches us to communicate without having to use words.” [Anon] “Our remaining silent can help others to find their voice,” [Anon]. We must learn to shut up if we are to learn anything. Sadly too many people are like the people in the classic Simon and Garfunkel song who have “dared disturb the sound of silence”.
George Bernard Shaw once humorously commented that, “I believe in the discipline of silence and could talk for hours about it.” We will not fall into that trap now, but rather allow silence to do the speaking, the teaching and therefore the learning — after all, we do not need a radio licence for that.
l Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS.