The Pleasure and Magic of Shared Silence

Friday, January 9, 2015 - 7:11am
Photo by Johann Loock

The Pleasure and Magic of Shared Silence

One of my favorite things to do is sit in silence with another human being in the same room.

Perhaps this love is rooted in my family of origin. We spent countless holidays each nestled into a different corner of the couch or in that battered, brown recliner, books in hand, minutes swiftly and imperceptibly slipping through the hour glass of precious vacation time. As the sun would set further and further, we would all squint harder and harder, until someone finally tore away from their book long enough to flip a light switch. If you broke the silence to quote your author out loud, it better be a string of words well worthy of the interruption.

In college, parallel silence evolved. This time, we were immersed, not in delicious novels but overpriced textbooks. Yana would sit at her desk, pouring over anatomical diagrams and pictures of cells doing whatever it is that cells do under the harsh gaze of microscopes, and I would sit at mine — an exact mirror just five feet opposite — filling Rousseau’s Social Contract with questions and underlining and all matter of nerdy, earnest inquiry. When I see Yana, a pediatric oncologist now, I still feel like there’s a knowing between us that is uncommonly deep in direct relation to the hours we spent as silent mirror images of one another.

There is the silence of family and the silence of friendship. And then there is the silence of love.

A couple reads together under a bridge in Paris, France.

(Nastya Shershneva / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

I’ve come to realize that, for me, romance sustains itself on this sense of being separate together. It may soar during particularly fascinating conversations or hikes with outrageous views or really delicious meals or well, sex obviously — all these things that smash boundaries and synch two into one — but at 3 pm on a Sunday when I look up from the newspaper, piled all around me, along with a coffee grown cold, and see John immersed in his own thing, I feel so ridiculously in love. There’s just something about it — being respectful and even defensive of someone else’s quiet is far more seductive to me than flowers or diamonds or any other artifice of chivalry. It means that you’re attracted to someone’s mind, that you want to give it space to fill and wonder.

And now there are the quiet moments of motherhood.

Friends silently read together, side-by-side, on Waikiki beach in Lima, Peru.

(Miguel Vera León / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).)

There is so much talk about talking with babies. Apparently you can enrich their development by leaps and bounds just by chatting to them about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, even if they’re too young to respond. And I do this. I’ve done this, almost nonstop, for a year.

But there are also moments when I just want to sit in silence with my little girl. We are on the floor, like always, and she’ll pick up a board book (often upside down) and start flipping through the pages, studying each one ever so seriously, thinking God knows what, and I just sit there and watch her and listen to her breathe and marvel at the way her will has come sprouting up. Or we’ll sit in the dark right before I lay her in her crib for the night, and I’ll nurse her, and it’s just us and the quiet and I know that it’s all, her infancy, this life, so outrageously fleeting. I can only feel that, really feel that sense of the fleeting eternal, when I am silent with her.

A mother and daughter stroll silently along a tree-lined boulevard in London, England.

(David D'Amico / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

The years stretch out before us and they are not so long as I’d once thought. The details of parenting fall away — the highchair filthy with hidden smears of food, the childcare taxes, the music classes. We rock ever so slightly and she settles down into the crook of my elbow and let’s out her little sleepy sighs and I am capable of being even more grateful than I am tired.

I am so lucky to live with, to have lived with, people that guard my quiet, that need me there even when I have nothing smart to say, that know my presence as something far different than my performance. I might even be most myself in these shared silences.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

She is currently working on a book titled The New Better Off, exploring how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their baby girl Maya. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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26Reflections

Reflections

This hits home with me on a little different level as I'm now mostly home during the days with my sweet 25-year old daughter who has Rett syndrome. As a result she is almost always completely silent. Sometimes I fill the void by chattering about whatever is on my mind, but the most precious time is sometimes quieting myself to sit in lingering silence with her. Thank you for writing this sentiment...

sweet, thank you...I actually love sitting with my husband of 39 years & just be...we are both of sound mind even @ 70 (me) & 90 (him) years old...but ofter we don't need a lot of words in order to be in loving communion...

This brought back many memories of nursing my daughters in the middle of the night. Thanks for yet another nice read!

Your essay resonates on so many levels for me, Courtney. My husband of 30-plus years and I will spend a glorious weekend morning reading in silence in the early hours and will often then share our thoughts on what we've come across. It's sweet surrender as we add to and come to know one another more deeply during these moments. Thank you for sharing.

My granddaughter is eight years old. Right now, I still pick her up and she wraps her legs around my waist and grins as we hug. I want her to remember when she was small enough and I was young enough to hold her like this. I want her to remember when she was still delighted to see me. When we are together and quiet, I wonder if she feels our connection. Lately, I worry that our time to develop or sustain our bond is running out and that she will grow away from me and become a teenager who finds Grandmother boring.

I share your experience, my granddaughter just turned 15 and we still enjoy our time together, we still hug a lot and often enjoy the time together with our noses in books.

I had the same experiences with my husband, he was busy studying and I was doing my things quietly, then he or I stopped to share something but then resumed what we were doing, they were really precious moments.

Beautiful. Just a beautiful gift to sit and hold a space for your words and to be held by them. Thank you.

I felt like this was a direct reflection of myself. I hope one day I can say the same;
'I am so lucky to live with, to have lived with, people that guard my quiet, that need me there even when I have nothing smart to say, that know my presence as something far different than my performance. I might even be most myself in these shared silences.'

I am so thankful for this essay. Quietness is something that I cherish, and sometimes need to have - especially after a long day/week at work. To sit in the quiet and be absorbed in a great book is priceless. Living along affords more quiet moments for me than for those with families. I long, however, to share my love for quiet moments with someone special...maybe someday.....

Reminds me of a favorite Rilke quote: "Love consists of this: two solitudes that meet, protect and greet each other."

I remember being annoyed with the mindless chatter that often filled the room where my father lay dying in the last days of hospice. I just craved "people that guard(ed) my quiet". Nowadays - quiet is often the soundtrack of my days spent with my 88 year old mother as she continues her twisted journey deeper into Alzheimer's. The comments that do punctuate the airspace don't always make much sense but soon enough her voice will be silenced. It's nice to know that the quiet days ahead will remind me just as much of her presence.

Thank you so much to everyone for these beautiful comments. I wasn't sure if this topic was a little too "odd" or personal to resonate, so it's especially gratifying to see that this spoke to some of you.

My favorite poem from childhood when I would spend silent hours in the same room with my grandpa (Bobo) came from an old literature collection volume of his that he gave me. The poem by Edgar Lee Masters, "Silence", deeply spoke to me and I read it over and over not really understanding why I loved it so much...until many years later when I was able to contrast quiet with noise and realized my soul rests in silence. Your words gave more understanding to me ...thank you.

I understand shared silences; they can happen even in a crowded room.

Shared silences...giving one another the space to simply be. Indeed, we are most ourselves when there is no pressure to fill the void with frivolous speech or sound. I am smitten with this piece.

I love this story.

One of my fondest memories of childhood is of being with my father when we were alone in the living room of our home while he built a fire and we listened to it crackle and hiss without speaking. It was a cold, wet, winter day and it was one of the few times no other members of my large family (5 kids and two parents) were around. I was the youngest of the 5 and was only 3 1/2 years old. He died suddenly soon thereafter and I lost that memory for years. When it came back to me as an adult, it was one of the sweetest gifts I have ever received.

You say it so well in this piece - that silence provides its own kind of chemistry in a relationship. It calls to mind last month, when my husband of 15 years and I went away for the weekend. What I loved when I reflected on our time together is that we hiked down a path to the beach and when we arrive, we naturally peeled off from one another. I walked the length of the beach to right and he walked the length of the beach to the left, and then we came back together without even commenting on it. Sharing the beach with one another in silence like that was kind of magical.

great reflection, as always. many thanks

Thanks so much for sharing this. I love it. I've always felt a bit weird for feeling this way, but I'm grateful to know that I'm not alone, and the way you've put it into words is so beautiful.

Years ago my sister gave me a poem that is framed in a gold frame and hangs over my desk. Dried flowers sprayed in gold dance alongside the words that are printed on parchment paper and that say:

Each one must find a quiet place
within his heart where he may go
to find himself and for a space
drink deeply where still waters flow.

My sister and I shared many moments of quiet together as we grew up - walking, reading, making corn patties in our Indian Cellar from the cow corn we had picked in the fields. My sister passed in 2006. Quiet moments have taken on a new meaning for me since her passing and offer me a new blessing. It is there, in the quiet, that I am able to remember and to be with her once again.

Thank you for sharing the lovliness of quiet. I do not think I fully realized before the richness and fullness of spirit that are present in my times of quiet.

My mother once blessed me with a comment of quiet recognition. We were on a five day canoe trip in Killarney and I realized that we had gone most of one day paddling in silence. I said "wow, we have not spoken in hours" and she replied "that is what I love most about you, we don't have to talk to speak."

"we don't have to talk to speak" - that is so beautiful!

Awesome insight Krista! Thank you for sharing the depths of your life.

None of my friends really understand that silence can be so beautiful, and I think maybe it's because we're all so young (18-20) and there's so much to do before you really settle down but I look forward to sharing silences with someone I love. I feel like those moments are stronger somehow, like you are both existing in each others presence but not needing to say anything. It's really cool to see this said on this article cause I never see anything like this.