Even though I have not worked at a job in a long time, I still get up early to enjoy a few hours of silent privacy. Lately, the man who lives next to me has been getting up early too, and when I hear him it annoys me, but this week he is out of town.
I need silence to survive. Sitting in my favorite chair in the living room, drinking my first cup of black tea, I breathe deeply and absorb the silence. This morning, I don’t even hear birds chirping, they must be on their way south for the winter.
The more I reside in solitude, the more aware I am of how threatening silence is. Just stop talking for awhile and observe how people start treating you differently. It is not uncommon to suddenly get labelled a freak, a loner, or a weirdo. People who chose to ‘not talk’ are considered unfriendly, shy, introverted, lonely, afraid, self-conscious, hostile, passive-aggressive, suspicious, aloof, uncaring, uncooperative, threatening. This list could go on and on. Most forms of torture are designed to ‘get people to talk.’
When I don’t talk, it doesn’t mean anything other than ‘I prefer not to talk.’ Yet over and over, I encounter people who assign meaning to this in a way that has something to do with them. Those who compulsively use others as mirrors that reflect themselves, will look at person who is not talking and start to put words into their mouth.
Why is it so important that we know what someone thinks, and, why do we find it threatening if we don’t? In the US, there is a constitutional amendment that (in theory) guarantees free speech, but no amendment to protect silence. Before being arrested a person is sometimes told, “You have the right to remain silent,” but this is followed by . . . because anything you say, can and will ‘be used against you’ in a court of law.
People who are silent are threatening because of an automatic assumption that they know something you do not know. The paranoid reaction of, “What are they hiding,” gets repeated over and over until the silent person becomes dangerous. Or, on the other hand, if the silent person is not considered personally or socially important (i.e. they are odd, poor or elderly), then nobody cares what they think. In this situation the silent person is given a stimatizing label (lonely, isolated, depressed, pathetic, etc.) and ignored because of their stigma.
The more silent I become, the more I realize that there is no way to win social approval through silence. If someone chooses this path (or does not choose it but ends up here anyway), they will have to live with the all-pervasive ‘social disapproval’ this engenders.
A few months ago, a retired woman moved into a condo a few doors down from me. One day she cheerily called out, “Hi, I’m Susan and I just moved into 148.” I said hello and welcomed her to the neighborhood. Later, when we both happened to be in the laundry room, she introduced herself again and told me a long story about her mother having Alzheimer’s, her caregiver role, and her mother’s death.
I listened to her, not because I had any interest in her mother, but because I knew if I did not listen I would be perceived as unfriendly. The older I get, the more I notice how some older women like to turn other older women into therapists or immediate best friends. They think if they suddenly blurt out their life story that the woman they are talking to will feel kindly disposed towards them, and/or that their self-revelation will produce a kind of intimacy. Of course, younger women attempt this too, but they are more likely to use sexual intercourse as the first move.
Last week I saw a movie called ‘Equity.’ It was about a female investment banker who loses two important deals because of how she communicates. The scene that intrigued me the most was when, (after she finds out her male lover maliciously tanked her IPO offering), she says, “What is this to you, a game?” To which he replies, “Of course it’s a game, what did you think it was.”
The assumption that intimacy guarantees a woman certain unspoken benefits was starkly and succinctly laid to rest. Giving someone access to your secrets, or your body, is no longer the tacit agreement it used to be.
For me, the last, beleaguered stand for silence is privacy (the state or condition of being free from being observed or disturbed by other people). A world without privacy is a world without silence, as these two things are inseparable. When life is nothing more than a game where one person reflects the fear and paranoia of another, and when every person’s silence is percieved as either an isolating threat or an isolating stigma, then what is left but a painful descent into the disintegration of everything we once called human.
Silence is a complex issue. Which is why most people avoid it by talking. But by talking, talking, talking, we are moving futher away from the mystery that holds everything together.