Ode to Silence

Three highlights from my recent journey to Israel.  See if you can spot the common thread.

First:  A rather exhausting hike up Mt. Zephachot, situated in the Jewish state’s southernmost town of Eilat.  When we reached the rocky summit, boasting awe-inspiring vistas of Egypt, Jordan and the Red Sea, our leader, Asaf, instructed each member of our group to find his or her own spot, away from everyone else, and simply to sit and reflect until further notice.

Second:  Visiting Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust museum, we concluded our formal tour in the Hall of Names, a comparatively small room whose circular wall is adorned with more than four million volumes of material comprising biographical information of every known victim of the Holocaust.  After a brief explanation, the museum’s tour guide turned off her microphone and allowed us to take in this spectacle in peace.

And third:  On the trip’s final, sunny morning in Jerusalem, I left the hotel and (in flagrant violation of the Birthright program’s rules) went for a stroll.  It was a Saturday, the Jewish day of rest, and although Israel is largely a secular country, it nonetheless honors the fourth Commandment and effectively closes down on the Sabbath.  As I walked the streets of this normally bustling capital city, I found businesses closed, train and bus service suspended, and no activity of any sort, save the occasional worshiper making his or her way to synagogue.

In all three of these moments:  Total, blissful silence.

Surely everyone recalls the scene in Pulp Fiction in which John Travolta and Uma Thurman go on a date to a hopping ’50s restaurant and, after ordering their food, find they have nothing to say to each other.  Thurman finally breaks the tension by asking, “Don’t you hate uncomfortable silences?”  Travolta affirms, and Thurman continues, “That’s when you know you’ve found somebody really special:  When you can just shut the fuck up for a minute and comfortably share silence.”

Would that we might apply this credo more generally to our day-to-day lives.

America is a loud country.  A country of talkers.  We talk both with and at each other, not always pausing to listen before resuming to talk again.  We talk to hear the sound of our own voices, to fill the room with noise for noise’s own sake.  Indeed, nothing may frighten us collectively more than silence.

Oh, how I wish none of this was so.

Perhaps because I am (or presume to be) a writer, I am convinced there is very little that cannot be stated perfectly well on the page, rather than out loud.  I prefer to text than to talk, and when compelled to communicate a message orally, I attempt to do so in as few words as possible.

I have long given up on most cable TV news programs, as they are little more than glorified shouting fests, with host and guest engaged in an insufferable competition for verbal and physical (rather than intellectual) dominance.  I congratulate any viewer who manages to glean any sort of insight from this grating piffle.  I struggle.

A reason I find excessive talking so annoying (at any decibel) is because it cheapens the language I hold most dear.  Listen carefully and you will find that those who speak at the greatest length tend to be those with the least to say, and, consequently, become the easiest to tune out.  Consider the words of Christopher Hitchens, who theorized that, in oratory, “One has to be a spellbinding person to speak for more than half an hour,” adding, “If one is spellbinding, one doesn’t really need the half-hour.”

I do not mean to suggest that words cannot have intrinsic value and beauty, or that conversation as we know it ought to be phased out except for the pure transmission of information.  What a horribly dull society that would produce.

I mean only to say that we do not appreciate both the value and the beauty of resisting the impulse to opine and converse, and allowing for the occasional pause in its place.

We have the right to remain silent.  We should exercise it more often.


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