In the song, ‘The Sound of Silence,’ there is a line about people talking without speaking and people hearing without listening. Silence can be a haunting sign of the struggle to communicate. But is it always such a terrible thing?
If you have been in a lift, up at 5 am or on a bad date, you will have experienced silence. It may be something you vaguely remember from your younger years. Or silence may be fleeting, appearing for a moment with a power enough to shock you, before being consumed. Perhaps between family life, work and the busy streets of Singapore, silence may have been lost altogether. And with it may have gone the chance to contemplate, to reflect and to listen. Which is perhaps why some people find themselves wandering into a counselling room.
We may be tempted as therapists to fill a silence when it descends. It is awkward between people and may encourage a great deal of anxiety in you too; perhaps someone has nothing to say, or seemingly doesn’t care. Maybe you have run out of words. It may feel like you are not there, or perhaps that they are not and you are on your own. These are powerful feelings which encourage speaking just to break the silence (even in words, it is fragile). It may be experienced as a loss of something, which may be too much for some – including Paul Simon!
But there may be a different experience too. If you consider that ‘…silence is complementary to words in general…’ (Sabbadini 2004, P.229), it could be easier to see a role for it, one which offers something rather than taking it away. Buddhism and Mindfulness both speak of the benefits of silence. Perhaps allowing for a ‘…silent space within…’ (Sabbadini 2004, P.231) may give you something to make of these moments. Silence may be an opportunity to consider someone or something else, whether they are there or not. It is a communication, encouraging attention, both in you and in others, in contrast with the perpetual noise of modern life. It could be a chance to digest – try talking and eating at the same time to get a clearer idea of this – or simply a chance to pause. It also offers hope, even expectation – think of a silence falling over a crowd at a cinema or a concert as the performance begins. It is therefore something that can be recognised and even used, rather than avoided.
You are perhaps reading this in silence; or you may have life going on in the background. This may indicate how it feels to you, a good starting point to consider its role in your life. So next time it all goes quiet, perhaps hold on for just a moment before you allow the noise to kick in. You never know what you might hear.
Sabbadini, A. ‘Listening to Silence’, British Journal of Psychotherapy, 21 (2), pp.229-240
Simon, P & Garfunkel, A. ‘The Sound of Silence’, Columbia Records (Originally released as ‘The Sounds of Silence’, October 1964)
by Robert Leveson
Psychotherapist & Counsellor,
Children and Families (Reg; TSP, BPC)