When Silence Tries To Tell You Something But You'd Rather Avoid It
Yesterday I challenged myself to take the entire day off—no work whatsoever, not even checking my email; social media, obviously, was a huge NOT TODAY SATAN. Laundry, errands, cleaning: a firm no. But from the moment I settled under my blanket on the blue chair with my coffee, I felt an intense urge to scrap this idea of no work and get busy anyways. It was as if my “no” to work suddenly ignited in me a rare motivation to straight-up OWN my to-do list. But my planner remained closed on my desk, taunting me with all the things I could be doing, all the progress I could be making. I had plans with friends later in the afternoon, but the whole morning was mine. What was I supposed to do if I couldn’t work?!
Would I have to—God forbid—sit in silence?!
I live in quiet quite a bit—I work from home, and often I go hours speaking no words except to tell my annoying cat to please stop meowing at the door. Though my days might be quiet, they are entirely absent of silence. I am 98.37% of the time engulfed in noise—Mumford & Sons' album playing for the third time in a row, clicking away at an email, scrolling through the bloodbath that is Twitter, or even simply attempting to moderate the stream of thoughts that fight over the microphone in my brain.
I can live in quiet, but I can’t live in silence. Every morning I read and journal, but any time I attempt to sit in silence, I am like a four-year-old amped up on ten Capri Suns, fidgeting and distracted as I try to sit through my teacher reading a five-page picture book. I can’t do it. So to relieve myself of this uncomfortable silence, I return to reading or to writing or I give up altogether and go into the familiar space that is my work.
Thomas Merton, a baller of a contemplative monk and author whom I just recently discovered existed, writes in one of his essays:
“In silence we face and admit the gap between the depths of our being, which we consistently ignore, and the surface which is untrue to our own reality.”
In silence, we notice our facade for what it is: a pretense, not a true revelation of who we really are. No wonder silence is so difficult to sit within. Listening for the ways in which we’ve cloaked our true selves in socially-acceptable masks seems like an inconvenient amount of work. Who has time, anyways? No more space in my planner for “contemplate the ways I’m living a lie,” soz.
Plus, do I really want to know all the ways I’m screwing up at this life thing? “This requires great courage, because when we start looking, we might be terrified by what we see.” Amen to that, Henri Nouwen. Let me bury my head in my to-do list and coffee; I’ll take ignorance over whatever hard truths might be waiting for me in silence.
But Merton continues:
“We recognize the need to be at home with ourselves in order that we may go out to meet others, not just with a mask of affability, but with real commitment and authentic love.”
Authentic love? That sounds appealing, at least to the part of me that desires to be a good person and actually take Jesus seriously when he said, “Love one another.” This part of me is most present when I am sipping my coffee as the sky turns dawn blue or as I sit at my desk to untangle my thoughts into strings of hastily-written words in a notebook. But this part of me is usually stuffed into my desk drawer as soon as I pull out my planner or refresh my email or head to the coffee shop for a morning of writing. Then my brain goes into MUST DO ALL THE THINGS mode, and I again forget that life is about love, not work. I have selective amnesia in that way.
It’s been a little discomforting to realize how disordered my priorities are—how “love other people” is like, #98 on my to-do list (and on a good day, at that)—because I like to consider myself a fairly loving human: I call my mom, I try to remember birthdays, I smile at cashiers, I let cars merge in front of me during rush hour.
This awareness of my love-lack (read: severe selfishness) first presented itself when, a few weeks ago, my roommate asked how my day had been.
“It was okay,” I answered.
I explained that I hadn’t gotten nearly as much done on my to-do list as I had hoped. I was way behind in my work.
But later that night, I had one of those WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH ME realizations: the reason I hadn’t gotten as much work done was because I had spent the afternoon with a dear friend who was in town. Why in the actual temp-rising world had I let my productivity be the litmus test for whether or not my day had been good?!
Point. Set. Match. Only I’m on the losing side of the court, throwing my tennis racket to the ground like a sore loser.
Before I lead you to believe I’m a sociopath: I do genuinely love and appreciate my people—I am beyond grateful for the friends and family who choose to love me, even when I freak out or take ten days to finally mail that birthday card. I’m not a narcissist. This is good news! However I am, like most humans, entirely and woefully too selfish. My selfishness comes in the form of thinking time is my own, claiming “Mine! Mine! Mine!” over it like the group of one-minded seagulls in Finding Nemo. I set boundaries around my day, building a shock fence around my time in the name of productivity. Anything (and admittedly, anyone) who tries to disturb this is seen as a terrible inconvenience and a fair invitation to surliness; like a werewolf at the full moon, I transform into a grump at the slightest tread on my time, only this time the full moon is someone asking me to work at the last minute or my Internet acting up (thanks, Comcast).
What I think of as loving others is, often, as Merton describes it, “a mask of affability” and not at all the real thing. Often, my “yes” to people comes from the compulsion to be liked or to be polite rather than out of the desire to genuinely love someone. Meanwhile Silence is over here waving ten red flags, trying to catch my attention and point out that maybe, just maybe, my perspective might need some tweaks—and large ones, at that. Like, we’re talking scrap the whole film and re-shoot it level tweaks.
But in order to make those changes, to even consider making those changes, I have to cultivate intentional stillness, to sit in the discomfort of silence even when my email and social media and agenda is like my cat, sitting at my feet and begging for attention (and occasionally clawing me and accidentally drawing blood). I have to take that entire day off, instead of avoiding the discomfort of an empty Saturday morning by diving into another day of work.
“Genuine love is a personal revolution,” Merton writes in another essay.
This revolution of genuine love is one that begins not in loud activity and punny slogans, but alone in the discomfort of silence. So we take courage; we turn down the noise, and we try to sit in the silence, to listen to the low whisper that tells us life isn’t about productivity and accolades, but instead: always, and always, and always about love.
[Editor's Note: I'd highly recommend the collection of Merton's essays, Love and Living. This guy is C.S. Lewis-level wise, and his essays invite you into a deeper reflection of life, which is always a good thing, right? If you purchase his book from Amazon, Windrose will receive a li'l bit of cash money in return, at no extra cost to you. You get an excellent book; we get to keep Windrose in the green. Wins all around!]
Windrose Magazine is your guide to navigating life in your twenties through a collection of essays, interviews, and advice that will inspire you to chart your own life course, free of comparison.
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