Silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist. In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth; we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others; and we choose how to express ourselves. By remaining silent we allow the other person to speak, to express him or herself; and we avoid being tied simply to our own words and ideas without them being adequately tested. In this way, space is created for mutual listening, and deeper human relationships become possible. It is often in silence, for example, that we observe the most authentic communication taking place between people who are in love: gestures, facial expressions and body language are signs by which they reveal themselves to each other. Joy, anxiety, and suffering can all be communicated in silence – indeed it provides them with a particularly powerful mode of expression. Silence, then, gives rise to even more active communication, requiring sensitivity and a capacity to listen that often makes manifest the true measure and nature of the relationships involved. When messages and information are plentiful, silence becomes essential if we are to distinguish what is important from what is insignificant or secondary. Deeper reflection helps us to discover the links between events that at first sight seem unconnected, to make evaluations, to analyze messages; this makes it possible to share thoughtful and relevant opinions, giving rise to an authentic body of shared knowledge. For this to happen, it is necessary to develop an appropriate environment, a kind of ‘eco-system’ that maintains a just equilibrium between silence, words, images and sounds.
(Aside to Vatican: Change the background on your site. It’s very noisy.)
Making the case for silent communication has always been a tricky business, since language itself wants to make an oxymoron of the idea, but it’s trickier than ever today. We’ve come to confuse communication, and indeed thought itself, with the exchange of explicit information. What can’t be codified and transmitted, turned into data, loses its perceived value. (What code does a programmer use to render silence?) We seek ever higher bandwidth and ever lower latency, not just in our networks but in our relations with others and even in ourselves. The richness of implicit communication, of thought and emotion unmanifested in expression, comes to be seen as mere absence, as wasted bandwidth.
Whitman in a way is the most internet-friendly of the great poets. He would have made a killer blogger (though Twitter would have unmanned him). But even Whitman, I’m pretty sure, would have tired of the narrowness of so much bandwidth, would in the end have become a refugee from the Kingdom of the Explicit:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
“Unaccountable” indeed. I’m speechless.