I really respect people who love silence. They go on retreat and spend days alone in quiet with just their own thoughts for company. It is almost as if by stripping away all other noise, they become aware again of that intimate connection at the centre of the Universe which gently holds and sustains them. Without the other distractions of life and relationship it is much easier to get back in touch with this infinite presence at the heart of everything.
I get that! However, I was punished with silence. “Go to your room and think very carefully about what you’ve done and don’t come out until you’re ready to apologise.” Silence for me is about disconnection. It’s the consequence of being bad. I even had a boss who would give me the long, cold, silent treatment when I had made a mistake in my work. I remember one morning being in a lift full of employees from other departments. As he got in, he made a huge show of greeting everyone enthusiastically, accept me. They all knew who he was and what my relationship was to him. It was utterly humiliating. Even after this, it carried on. He’d completely ignore me, turn his back when I came into a room and talk without any reference to my existence. It went on for what seemed like weeks. Eventually, I went into his office and begged him to shout at me so that he could get his displeasure with me out and, then hopefully, done with!
When I experience silence, I feel panic. I have lost everything. I am in free fall with nothing secure to reach out for. The critical voice in my head recounts over and over, continuously all the evil I have ever committed, all the failings I’m deeply ashamed of. “This is your own fault. If you had not exposed yourself to scrutiny, you would not have been found out for the miserable wretch you are!” I can’t get away from it. I try to sleep and the voice just gets louder and more insistent. I turn the radio on to drown it out. I seek to distract my mind with a good book or compelling drama. This goes on for days. It is torture. It feels like it will last forever and there will be no end to it.
But there is a cure. It is re-connection. It’s finding the strength and resolve to contradict that internal tyrant and resist the overwhelming urge to never let anyone see you in vulnerability again. It’s being courageous enough to trust again despite the pain that will inevitably result. It’s forgiving others for circumstances that, however inadvertently or unintentionally, contributed to your suffering. It’s not hating yourself for breaking cover, revealing what’s precious in a potentially hostile environment and allowing it to be judged. It’s choosing to believe it won’t be as bad as this next time. It’s being willing to entertain the idea there will be a next time!
Silence is not a bad thing but it should carry a health warning. It exposes what’s there. And that’s necessary. It can create space for healing. But for some of us silence can be an unwelcome presence because what it reveals is our shame.