When two people are conversing with one another, however, a third is always present: Silence is listening. That is what gives breadth to a conversation: when the words are not moving merely within the narrow space occupied by the two speakers, but come from afar, from the place where silence is listening. That gives the words a new fullness. But not only that: the words are spoken as it were from the silence, from that third person, and the listener receives more than the speaker alone is able to give. Silence is the third speaker in such a conversation.
Silence is a world in itself, and from this world of silence speech learns to form itself into a world: the world of silence and the world of speech confront each other. Speech is therefore opposed to silence, but not as an enemy: it is only the other side, the reverse of silence. One can hear silence sounding through speech. Real speech is in fact nothing but the resonance of silence.
Silence can exist without speech, but speech cannot exist without silence. The word would be without depth if the background of silence were missing. Nevertheless silence is not more than speech; on the contrary, silence on its own, the world of silence without speech, is the world before creation, the world of unfinished creation, a world of menace and danger to man. Not until speech comes out of silence does silence come out of pre-creation into creation, out of the prehistoric into the history of man, into close relationship with man, becoming part of man and a lawful part of speech. But speech is more than silence, because truth is first expressed concretely by speech, not by silence.
Max Picard, The World of Silence
Reflection – Well, isn’t this just the most beautiful thing you are going to read today? It is that for me, and one of the most beautiful things I have read this month or year, for that matter. Who is this Picard guy, and where is he getting all this? There is an uncanny quality to this book, a sense that it is written from some other world, some transcendent experience of reality.
So here we have his thoughts on the relation of silence and word, silence and communication. Have you ever had occasion to notice that sometimes conversations don’t… well, they don’t go so well? People don’t seem to quite listen to each other, don’t seem to quite attend, or at least the responses they make to each other seem to be quite awry, quite failing to meet the other person. Tempers rise, misunderstandings compound one another, feelings are hurt, noses are bit off and ears boxed, and the next thing you know a friendship is ended or never has a chance to begin.
This is especially true of conversations held online, a tricky business in the best of circumstances (writing clearly is really hard, folks!). Word move at lightning speed solely within the narrow space occupied by the two speakers—the third person is absent, silence is absent in which the words of each find their depth and resonance, and so the conversation goes nowhere.
‘You have to be someone before you can share yourself.’ Jaron Lanier wrote those words in his manifesto You Are Not a Gadget. It is in silence that we become someone, that our personal being takes shape and expresses itself in the word. The Word of God became flesh in the silence of Mary’s womb; the word of man becomes flesh in the womb of silence.
If there is no silence, there can be no real communication, no meaningful speech. And I am afraid that much of the words our world is increasingly crowded with, clamorous with, are not coming out of any great silence, but come from busy restless noisy and (too often) self-seeking minds. Words without depth because silence is missing.
Picard, himself clearly forming his words from some place of deep silence within himself, is challenging all of us (myself included) to really look at where our words are coming from, and what those words are engendering in the world, and if we should not perhaps attend more and more to that third person in the conversation and be much, much slower to speak and react and sound off. It’s… kind of important, given the need we see in this world for words and deeds coming from a place of mercy, gentleness, and tender love, and not ego and pride and anger. Silence is the womb of these things, as well, and the place where our words are imbued mysteriously with those gracious gifts.