A Time to be Silent

In the busyness of life lately, I’ve had time to contemplate silence. It’s interesting to mull over when words can’t or shouldn’t be spoken. As the Bible book of Ecclesiastes shares, there’s definitely a time to be silent.

How often do we practice this? Or are we more inclined to flap our mouths and not listen to others in the process? Sometimes silence abounds because we’re secretly dying for someone to ask us how things are – and then wait for the answer rather than asking a question out of habit.

Years ago, someone wondered aloud to me why we ask people “how’s it going” in passing, but then move on. Worse, if the other person says anything other than “good” or something along those lines, we look at them like they’ve broken a social norm. So I’ve tried to become a more active listener – to ask questions, listen for the answer, and be responsive to someone who has opened their heart to share. I’ve learned over time that you hear more when you’re not the one speaking.

In my line of work, I do a lot of writing – and by default, a lot of listening. I hear the stories and news people share and translate their musings into something for others to read. I’ve learned how to listen for what’s not spoken, and use the silence to form questions that sometimes uncover a more complete story.

It makes me think of my dad. When I would come to him for advice, he’d listen attentively, ask clarifying questions, and make me answer my own questions. It drove me nuts for a long time, but then I realized that sometimes we put a lot of pressure on others to make decisions or put things into words for us. We ask them what they think, follow a course of action, and sometimes have the gall to be angry with the individual when it didn’t turn out as planned. My dad’s approach, however, causes me to make decisions based on complete information. Yes, his “silence” is a blessing.

Do you think of silence as a blessing, or as a curse? Consider what happens when no one is asking you to share your heart. No one asks you how you’re doing or if you need help. They assume all is well because you’re silent. Is the onus on you to speak up? Sometimes it is. There are people who let their emotions fester because no one has asked after them, so when someone does, it’s filled with anger and resentment. Sometimes you feel better sharing – to get things off your chest. (Though I do know so very well that sometimes there are just things you can’t share.)

Sometimes, the “sharing” can be more indirect. My Bible studies lately have focused on Job. He lost his kids, his animals, his livelihood, and then his health. His wife went a little psycho on him, too. He sat down among the ashes and used a broken piece of pottery to scrape his painful sores. You get the visual, and you can see the man suffering. Though pretty silent, Job wasn’t keeping his pain sheltered inside where it would do him harm.

His friends got the picture. While his friends turn out to be kind of lame in the end, they do start off on the right foot. After all this stuff happens to Job, they came to visit. They saw how bad it was, and “so they sat down with Job on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and none spoke a word to him, for they saw that his grief and pain were very great.” (Job 2:13)

Sometimes we just need to know someone will be there with us, help us stand, hold onto us while we stumble, and support us under the weight of the unbearable. In silence. In fact, once Job’s friends start to speak, their support seems to cave in. Same with us – when we open our mouths, are the things we’re saying in a friend’s time of need the right thing? Or do we dig a hole, make it worse, and jeopardize the friendship?

A couple years ago, I was battling a strange health anomaly. Symptoms came and went, doctors were baffled, and I underwent many invasive tests. At one point, I was diagnosed with a disease that’s incurable (fortunately, it later turned out not to be the case!). But in my church, when asked what was going on and I revealed the diagnosis, a well-meaning friend clapped me on the back and told me at least I wasn’t going to die. Well great! That sure made it better! No – it didn’t. This person was trying to make me feel better about the outcome, while I was struggling with the prospect of a life with endless medical procedures and surgeries. Rather than feel uplifted, I felt judged for my struggles and that I had no support. That person would have done much more good for my soul by simply giving me a hug and implying their support of me even though the circumstances were less than desirable. Yes, silence is golden.

In other instances, we need to learn to shut our mouths and accept what has been doled out to us without telling the world about our sorrows. Why? Because when we open our mouths, we are prone to say things that may be just wrong.

Look again at Job. He’d gone through terrible times, then had to sit and listen to his friends dump coals on his head. Did he sit there and take it? No – he let loose, and in the process, he essentially asked God to explain himself. Not simply, not in humbleness, not seeking to see the big picture – it was a flat out pity party. God’s response, as outlined in Job 40-41, gives me the tingles. Job got the picture. In Job 40:4, he looks kind of puny. “Behold, I am of small account and vile. What shall I answer you? I lay my hand upon my mouth.” He finally recognized that now was the time to be silent.

My big take-away from all this is that while there is a time to speak, there certainly is a time for silence. Time for silent reflection and listening. Time to absorb what is going on around you. Look beyond what has been said  to truly understand a heart.

Some great quotes for your reflection of this topic:

 “He who does not understand your silence will probably not understand your words.”
Elbert Hubbard

“If you can sit in silence with a person for half an hour and yet be entirely comfortable, you and that person can be friends. If you cannot, friends you’ll never be and you need not waste time in trying.”
L.M. Montgomery

“Silence is only frightening to people who are compulsively verbalizing.”
William S. Burroughs

“Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving us wordy evidence of the fact.”
George Eliot

“Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.”
Norton Juster

“Silence is pure and holy. It draws people together because only those who are comfortable with each other can sit without speaking.”
Nicholas Sparks


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