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A Fear of Silence?

sara.gladwin's picture

I have been thinking a lot about how I can incorporate silence into my daily routine.  I think if I can be more comfortable in silence I will be able to experience more fully, rather than distancing myself from an experience by constantly reflecting, interpreting and assigning it language.

I have learned since coming to Bryn Mawr that in order to feel “completed” at the end of my day, I need to fill my day with people. I need to be around people on a pretty consistent basis, talking and listening. I get caught in conversations frequently that will last anywhere from five minutes to three hours, sitting somewhere under a tree talking about poetry or sociology or just whatever surfaced within the conversation. In “Talking in Class” Jane Tompkins writes, “When talking is being, and being is being listened to, not talking drains you life away” (65). The way she relates existence as dependent upon talking and communicating felt so personal to me; it felt like she was describing so much of how I feel when I forget to immerse myself in other people. As much as I rely on speech now, I hadn’t always felt this way. I had to learn the art of communication. When I look back on my childhood I realized how little I relied on talking as a measure of my existence, and by extension, how little I saw myself through the eyes of other people. Even instances in which I was being teased, to my face, most of the time I never processed that I was being bullied because I was so far removed in understanding how to communicate with the other people I was trying to interact with. It was not until much later when I reflected on some of my memories that I was able to interpret the dynamics of those situations that I had not understood at the time. I realized later that being isolated was a way of protecting myself. If I did not understand than I could not be hurt by someone’s words. I remember going up the front of a classroom in the fifth grade to describe a project and opening my mouth and being unable to force the first line of my presentation out, which was simply: “Hi, my name is Sara.”  Even though the words were directly in front of me; my brain struggled to recall what function it was suppose to be performing. At the time I simply labeled this as a symptom of being shy. However, as I grew in my ability to articulate, I was able to better understand the complexities that existed behind some of my experiences.


From that time in the fifth grade and onward my mom actively worked on helping me to over come my inability to voice myself; I think in her eyes this was very much a character deficient and clearly a way in which the rest of the world would use to interpret me as a lesser intelligent being. I think she thought if I could only articulate myself, I would have a better chance as a student and as a social being- two things that are incredibly important to her as components of one’s identity. Because we have a family business that is located in our house, often she would have me read aloud in front of the people that came by the house. She would have me practice presentations over and over again, stopping me if any little thing was wrong. If I spoke too fast, I started over. If I forgot to look up during pauses in whatever I was reading, I started over. Eventually silence became inadequate as a form of protection and became something I abandoned for speech; I came to recognize that speech was a kind of virtue. To posses this virtue was desirable; it was a tool in which I would be able to connect with other people. Somewhere along the way I think I internalized a message both pivotal and detrimental to who I am; I came to see that speech was not only the way I would communicate with others but the way in which those people would evaluate me. I believed that each word was a measure of who I was presenting to the world. I became terrified of the very words I was forced to learn how to use; through the practices of communication I started identifying the intricacies surrounding language. I knew I needed to be careful with my language and the ideas I was admitting I believed in. I think part of my resistance to making definitive statements and to choosing a side is heavily steeped in this internalization that I will be judged based on what I am saying. Even the way I feel the urge to preface my sentences with “I think” or “I feel” is a way of accounting for the things I say; it is the marker of hesitancy. Using “I think” or “I feel” is a way to lessen the definitiveness of a statement, to distract or undermine any direct statement I happened to make.


Thinking about silence in this 360 has really helped me to reassess my own need to fill silence, something that has been impressed upon me as a practice since I was very young. Coming back to my desire to generate more silence in my routine I want to re-explore the guided meditation that we were lead through in one of our silence classes. Another class I am taking outside the 360 requires the students to choose a spot to revisit each week and observe the surroundings for an hour. I have decided to seek out some kind of meditation to begin this hour as a way of clearing my mind, so that I can be more open to experience. I want to try being “present” rather than being in a constant state of reflection. My first essay focused on this desire; this second essay outlines some of the ways in which I am going to actively try to “silence” myself as a method of becoming receptive what I eliminate by analyzing. The last silence class especially (in which we had to decide whether we strongly agreed or disagreed with particular statements) prompted me to revaluate my past experience with communication and speech to determine why I feel that I have to censor my language. I think this need is directly tied to why I am so afraid to experience blindly, without the protection of words, reflection and understanding. When words establish who you are, trying to separate from them is like parting with a piece of your identity. I fear that by choosing to experience before I reflect, I will risk forever losing some invaluable piece of knowledge that could have contributed to my forever-growing understanding of my identity.