We don’t often associate virtues with public life. Virtue in the singular, yes, that’s open to our own personal definition, and we can be very free with damning those who, or whose policies, we don’t like. I’ve been thinking rather on virtues in the plural, specific virtues, present often in our relationships with loved ones and family, but harder to find in social and especially political life.
Patience, humility, giving, silence all come to mind. It’s easy to argue that it would be a funny old world if we practised them all. So we don’t think we have to bother too much. We’d all be waiting, deferring to the next man or woman, giving until we had nothing to give, and we wouldn’t be communicating either. The world would grind to a halt.
Or would it?
Let’s take silence. We usually think of silence as the opposite of noise. We take a break and maybe a few deep breaths, but while we’re silent the noise in our heads keeps thundering on. Or maybe we meditate, and still the noise, but when we stop the noise comes flooding back. We’re playing a game of opposites.
It doesn’t matter what kind of noise it is, we’re only comfortable when there is noise. TV, radio, the press all keep up an endless cacophony, distracting us taking over our lives, and kidding is that their agenda of fame and fortune, love and hate, pride and prejudice, achievement and failure are our agendas too.
And then when there’s no-one around it’s the noise of our own thoughts, dwelling on past happinesses or hurts, present issues, future plans. Deep down we daren’t do without them, because if we did we tell ourselves we’d be bored, and we’d be frightened. We’d equate silence with solitude, and solitude with loneliness.
So arguing for silence that isn’t a temporary respite but is our real nature isn’t going to be easy. We’ll instinctively resist because that’s the way our lives are programmed.
But it’s only if we understand silence that we understand how all the noise of life traps us, carries us along, sets its own agenda, and turns us into people we’re not – with all the hurts and jealousies and triumphs that normally mark the passage of time.
‘If our life is poured out in useless words we will never hear anything in the depths of our hearts…’ (Thomas Merton) Merton was a Benedictine monk, a Trappist, and for him it was Christ who spoke in the silence.
For Buddhists silence is an aspect of emptiness, where we escape all the trappings and myriad identities of self.
For followers of the Tao in silence we find the rhythm of life, which Merton also well understood when he wrote that the rhythm of life ‘develops in silence’.
For all three in silence we abandon our sense of self, and if we abandon self we find a freedom we didn’t know existed.
Real silence, where we experience life as it really is, not a rush of noise and words, doesn’t separate us from the world, but commits us to it. We sense not only the deeper rhythms of life, in nature, in waking and sleeping, eating, working and playing, we also sense the suffering and the disharmonies that break those rhythms.
Some of us will look inward, to discover something deeper if we can, others will look out, out into the wider world, and out of the silence find a commitment to social justice, equal opportunity, integrity, compassion, to allow the natural rhythms to reassert themselves.
Nelson Mandela comes of course to mind, as one who has found calm in the storm. There are one or two others who approximate, but how can you find calm when there is no room for silence?
What are then the characteristics of a life of silence lived in the world?
Silence challenges the world, and all our actions. We aren’t apart from the world, but engaged with it, but it is compassion not emotion and self-interest that drive that engagement.
Self is all about assertion, making our mark. Silence recognises how absurd all that self-promotion can be, and let’s compassion show the way.
Silence goes deep, goes to the very heart of us. If we have opinions about silence, if we see silence as ‘time off’, if it’s just one state of mind among others, if it’s something we think we can dip in and out of, then we don’t understand it. Silence isn’t an intellectual state, a function of a rational mind, silence is the mind itself, silence is that point at which you can go no further, when freed from the everyday we can appreciate the wonder of existence, and show thankfulness (to what or whom in this context doesn’t matter) for being a part of it.
Silence is then also our lodestone, our measuring rod. If we get too drawn into the world, silence can pull us back from all the pride and anger and anxiety than can mislead us, and our fellows.
Some of us may retreat from the day-to-day to find silence, and there’s a danger that silence once found may become escape. If that’s the case we’ve lost our way, defined silence in terms of self. Silence isn’t about activity or inactivity, it’s more akin to standing on a set of scales and seeking instinctively to balance them. There’s nothing abrupt or rushed about balancing.
Silence is to be found in meditation but more importantly it is part of the very fabric of life. Just as for Buddhists form and emptiness are interwoven, so action and silence are interwoven, the one impossible without the other.
For politicians silence should be a key part of their understanding, so they can bring an objective focus, even-handedness, calmness of mind and compassion to their activities. We should welcome silence instead of answers, be wary of instant responses, opposed to TV, radio or newspaper journalists who press for them. We should recognise that if they have time to reflect they are as likely to change their minds as the rest of us, and we shouldn’t hold it against them if they do.
So, finally, back to our starting-point, and going one step further, are silence and a social and political agenda inconsistent? Do we need righteous anger, fear of suffering, pride in our achievements and even our country to drive humanity forward, recognising that even the stop-start progress, close-to-the-brink events of the last century are better than quiescence?
Well, yes we do, up to a point. Our day-to-day world will never know silence. There’s too much potential for disturbance in the briefest social encounter, a missed opportunity, even a grey or wet day. On a larger scale a minor perturbation becomes a massive injustice, and it’s those imbued with righteous anger who will be the first into the trenches to fight. But conflict is ultimately resolved by coming together, by compassion, and at the heart of compassion is silence, the still small voice at our core.
So I’ll keep my interest in politics, and argument, in film and fiction, but I’ll also keep alive within me that silent core to take me back to my real self if I ever venture out too far.