Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Sound of Silence

 I whiled away a couple of agreeable hours this afternoon in the company of friends. We talked about many things, from the weather in North Carolina to the numerous uses for a three-car garage. During the entire time, we spent not a moment in silence.

I wasn't the only talkative one in the group, so I didn't feel unduly responsible for keeping the conversation lively. But if I'd been with a quieter crowd, I would have made sure to fill every pause with a comment or question, or even mindless chatter, if it came to that. It's quite a burden, keeping a room from falling silent. But I shoulder it gladly. Anything to avoid the sound of silence.

I don't know how to be any other way. From an early age, I felt it was my job to fill up silences. When my father took me somewhere in the car, he often didn't speak as he drove. I agonized about what I should say, imagining that he wanted me to regale him with stories, gossip, or jokes. I realize now that he was probably quite content to have me by his side and didn't expect me to entertain him at all. What I regarded as painful silence may for him have been an opportunity to think about a problem at work or to rehash the previous night's baseball game in his mind.

Later, in college, I used to drive from my home on Long Island to Massachusetts with my boyfriend, Peter. Like my dad, Peter was often silent as we drove along. As with my dad, I struggled to think of things to talk about. After many such trips, Peter told a friend that he loved the way he could be with me without either of us saying a word. Little did he know the torments I suffered during those silences he apparently treasured.

I do sometimes enjoy quietude—I spend hours at my computer in silence; I find the quiet contemplation of nature very rewarding; and I rarely feel the urge to talk back to whatever novel I may be reading. But when I'm in the company of other people, my mind flits energetically about, hoping to alight upon on a subject of interest, so I can keep the conversation going.

When I'm with people I like, conversation usually flows effortlessly. In fact, I tend to gravitate toward people with whom talking is a pleasure, not a strain. That's the way it felt today, as if there wasn't time enough to cover all the subjects we wanted to discuss. Today, there was no silence, only the sound of laughter and good conversation.



    I like the way Quakers (Friends) don't feel compelled to speak either. They can endure long periods of silence between saying what comes up for them.

  2. Lately, I've been trying to practice a little silence. I share the need to fill up blank spaces, both in spoken conversation and written.