Times we do not speak

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“Surely human affairs would be far happier if the power in men to be silent were the same as that to speak.” Spinoza (Ethics, Part III, Propositions)

My son gave me a book this Christmas. It is called Bento’s Sketchbook: How does the impulse to draw something begin? by John Berger. Scattered throughout his reflections on drawing, and on story telling, are quotes from Spinoza. I do not understand these quotes for the most part. I found them intriguing as I read them, and go back and back to read them again, to try and puzzle out what they mean. The one above, however, caused a spark of recognition, made a connection with what I have been exploring: times when silence allows us to learn, when the desire to speak is best on pause.

While we were in New York this holiday I began to notice times when those around me often did not talk . One place was the subway going from Brooklyn into Manhattan. While some students talked in small groups as they rode into school, and while some mothers leaned over and spoke quietly to their children in strollers, for the most part we all sat across from each other or next to each other and were quiet. Some were reading– often the newspaper, a novel or their electronic readers. In the case of the latter I missed not being able to see what my car mate was so absorbed by; I could not try to make a connection between a book cover and a person and was often to be surprised by what I saw. I was struck, as I always am in New York, by the vast differences in the human form, by the way the hunched over man next to me in his yarmulke, in his eighties perhaps, jerked suddenly, his elbow nudging me, or his shoulder rising and falling rapidly as we moved into the city;  or the way a thin solemn boy listened intently to the music coming through his headphones, or the way the middle aged man in work boots drifted off to sleep, perhaps coming home from a night shift. We never spoke to each other.  

Another time, I rode the F Train out from Manhattan to Brooklyn with my daughter, Johanna and grandson, Harry. It was rush hour and people crowded onto the seats, moved to put their arms up above those sitting, took out their phones at the 9th Street station as the train pulled up and out into the bridge view. Some men watched Harry and smiled. Others were indifferent. Once in a while a woman touched his head as she got off, nodding to us as though we were responsible for how sweet he seemed. Another day my husband, Maury, and I found a seat for the long ride into mid town and no one said a word in our car for an entire forty- five minutes.

What I take from all this is the way quiet in the presence of such complexity and variety among men and women and children on the train, allows for a type of absorption of the world. If we allow ourselves to take this in, to be silent in the face of all we do not know, all the stories we have not heard, all the food and music and mixtures of ways of being in the world, how remarkable the world becomes.

Being quiet also is necessary for hearing what someone is saying. It is not researching on Wikipedia, it is not playing music or podcasts or streaming radio. It is taking a stance, one that says: I will focus on you, here, now. I will observe how your eyes shift away from me or stare into mine. I will hear what you believe has happened today or yesterday or at home this morning. And I will hear you. Being silent is the first step I will make, silence and observation, noting the way your body slumps in its chair or the way your hand trembles holding the coffee cup.

It is an irony of aging that as you get older you feel you know less rather than more about the way the world works. Along with this feeling comes liberation, a release from having to say, to explain, to tell. It is the understanding that each person in front of you is so complex, so unique, so unable to be categorized, that it is necessary to take time and silence before being certain, before knowing what must be done or taught or explained. New York seems to bring this awareness out in me more than any other place with the sheer variety of cultures, languages and array of human forms collected in intimate spaces.

Yet I also feel it wherever I am: the sometimes contradictory need to tell, to declare, and at the same time the need to be quiet, to take a longer pause, to absorb sounds or sights or the brush of a wool coat against my hand. I wish I had had this insight when I was a teacher, this delight in the story I find in a lined face, a newspaper with Hebrew lettering, a thick accent. I so often felt a need then to explain the lesson, keep to the schedule, meet the “objective”. I know that sometimes when I did abandon an assignment, when I stepped back and simply watched my students, when I noticed a new hairstyle, an anxious frown that was not there the day before, when I asked for the story from each of them and then let them speak, my silence in the presence of their narrative, taught me more about how to teach them than all the books, and guides and lectures and workshops I ever used.

Because knowing what was in their hearts, what bothered them or gave them delight, fed my plans for them, became a guide to how to reach them. There was a paradoxical power to my own silence that Spinoza yearns for in the saying above. It provided me with a basis for the best times of my teaching.

It is my hope for this year, that we consider the power we have in not having the answers.