Reflecting on Quietness

Whoever you are, bear in mind that appearance is not reality. Some people act like extroverts, but the effort costs them energy, authenticity, and even physical health. Others seem aloof or self-contained, but their inner landscapes are rich and full of drama. So the next time you see a person with a composed face and a soft voice, remember that inside her mind she might be solving an equation, composing a sonnet, designing a hat. She might, that is, be deploying the powers of quiet.

For several years I have been drawn to the meditative possibilities of quiet. When I was a teacher, I introduced students to the Quaker practice of not speaking unless we could improve upon the silence, particularly when discussing controversial issues. The rationale for this activity was that silence holds rich possibilities for insight and deepened understanding when we allow it to exist; to listen inwardly and hear the voice of wisdom residing there, we often need to get quiet. I found our classroom dialogues to be more intentional and meaningful when students paused and reflected on the quality of their thoughts before speaking. The binary framework of "right" and "wrong" responses also began to dissolve, allowing for more flexible and creative thinking and expression.

We often receive mixed messages on quietness in U.S. society, especially in educational settings. At school, many of us learn to be silent when the instructor is speaking. In contrast, a teacher may dock us participation points if we remain silent during periods when we have been instructed to engage in interactive activities or to raise our hands with the "right" answer. Whether viewed positively or punitively, silence becomes evaluated in such a context. Quiet no longer just is.

As an educator, one of my favorite things to do on the first day of class was to ask students to become curious about their verbal participation. If they felt compelled to speak, and even interrupt their peers, what was that about? Did they fear invisibility if they were not heard? Did they think they had more important things to say than their classmates? Did anxiety drive their need to share their thoughts? Conversely, if they sat back and observed others speaking, did they view this observation as a different kind of participation? Did they fear failure or judgment upon speaking? Did they want to get their thoughts carefully organized in their heads before uttering any words aloud? Once they became aware of their participation style, students could more freely choose how to contribute to the group space. Frequently, those urgent to speak started to sit back and listen more. And in the new space that opened up, those hesitant to speak would risk sharing their ideas with the group more frequently. I've found this same line of inquiry to be particularly useful with couples and other dyads engaged in a talker-quiet one dynamic that really does not work for either of them.

A major barrier to engaging in such open-ended investigations is the high value we place on being a "good talker" in the United States. In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, I appreciate Cain's focus on creating communities where we can share our strengths and talents, without having to sacrifice significant parts of ourselves. As she writes,

Introverts need to trust their gut and share their ideas as powerfully as they can. This does not mean aping extroverts; ideas can be shared quietly, they can be communicated in writing, they can be packaged into highly produced lectures, they can be advanced by allies. The trick for introverts is to honor their own styles instead of allowing themselves to be swept up by prevailing norms.

If we can suspend our judgments about what constitutes a "good" personality, presentation, or style, there really is room enough for us all and infinite ways to approach this precious life. What is more, we have so much to learn from each other when we grow curious enough to investigate the reality behind the appearance, whatever that appearance may be. I cannot improve upon the beauty of Mary Oliver's words about honoring our own authenticity and so leave you with "The Journey":

Wisconsin Trees along the Journey

One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice -- though the whole house began to tremble and you felt the old tug at your ankles. "Mend my life!" each voice cried. But you didn't stop. You knew what you had to do, though the wind pried with its stiff fingers at the very foundations, though their melancholy was terrible. It was already late enough, and a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones. But little by little, as you left their voices behind, the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own, that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only thing you could do -- determined to save the only life you could save.