Without truth language would be a general fog of words above the silence; without truth it would collapse into an indistinct murmuring. It is truth that makes language clear and firm. The line separating the true from the false is the support that holds language back from falling. Truth is the scaffolding that gives language an independent foothold over against silence.
Language becomes a world of its own, as we have said already; and language now has not only a world behind it—the world of silence, but a world near at hand—the world of truth.
The word of truth must keep in rapport with silence, however, for without it truth would be too harsh and too hard. It would then seem as though there were only one single truth, since the austerity of the individual truth would suggest a denial of the inter-relatedness of all truth. The essential point about truth is that it all hangs together in an all-embracing context.
Max Picard, The World of Silence
Reflection – I began discussing this quote from Picard yesterday, but found there was more to say about it than could fit into a single blog post. Yesterday I focused on the first two paragraphs, highlighting the necessary relationship of ‘language’ and ‘truth’, and how the loss of that connection, rather than liberating us to be tolerant and inclusive, actually reduces all communication to the base level of naked power struggle and manipulation.
The other side of this, though, is this final paragraph, where Picard emphasizes once again the role of silence in our lives, this time as a necessary counterbalance to the passion for truth and its expression.
For me, this means we need to listen deeply to one another. In the clamorous world of competing ideologies, political and social agendae, and world building projects of all kinds, we need all the more to seek out and embrace ‘the world of silence’, the world where I am not simply trumpeting my views to the world via social media or whatever other platform or pulpit I have, but where I in turn actively listen to that which is not me, that which is other from me.
Not simply so I can spot the weaknesses and fallacies of this other and tear it down with relish, but so that I hear the truth that, indeed, the other has to offer, even if I do disagree with them on the vital point.
This is not mushy moral relativism. I will never seriously consider that I may be wrong on the subject of, say, abortion, or contraception for that matter, or the nature of marriage, or the absolute obligation to care for the poor, or any one of a dozen other matters. For that matter, I am quite certain of the truth of who Jesus is, what the path of eternal life is, the nature of the Church and its necessity for salvation, and so forth. But because I have such opinions and hold them most strongly, believing them to be not simply ‘my own ideas’ but the Truth about Reality—all the more do I need to really listen to those who reject those truths and have other ideas about things.
Truth needs to be balanced by silence, humility, listening, or it devolves quickly into a harsh and hard doctrinarianism. Listening applies not only to listening to another person, although it is that for sure, but listening to the silence of the world, to one’s own heart, to the voice of God, ultimately, shrouded in mystery as that is.
Without this commitment to listening, the words we speak and the truths we advance are doomed to be unpersuasive and fall on deaf ears. Furthermore, even if we are in fact ‘right’ about various matters, the refusal/inability to listen, to have silence as the necessary counterbalance to our speech, dooms us to fall into the trap of arrogance, anger, pride, and a half-dozen other related vices. Being right can become more important that loving our neighbour, and that is a grim mistake indeed.
Language, truth, and silence together yield a very deep humility, a commitment to truth that does not make us into Pharisees or inquisitors or bullies, a commitment to silence and contemplation that is not a retreat into self-absorption and complacency, a commitment to speech and communication that is not merely a parade ground for the ego. And this is more and more the urgent call of our times, when all of the above is all too common. The world is full of people blaring their views at top volume and shredding everyone who disagrees with them with savage ferocity. Picard’s little book on silence and speech offers deep wisdom to offset this most modern mess, and we do well to heed him in this matter..