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Silence is Electric

Shirah Kraus's picture
Silence is Electric
Abby’s image of Aang from Avatar the Last Airbender caught my attention because I love the T.V. show and because this silence is so powerful and so prayerful, similar to experiences I have had with silence in prayer or meditation. Aang’s silence is intense and as Abby writes, “electric.” Aang is in the Avatar state, a state of survival and silence, of energy and electricity, frozen in time and space—both literally and figuratively: he has been frozen in this ice for 100 years. 
At first I looked at this image and the silence it represents with calm and content. Because of my privilege, I readily recalled positive experiences with silence. But as I continued to consider silence in its many forms, I realized that I have in fact felt silenced, watched others be silenced, and I’m sure I myself have silenced others. My many privileges—whiteness, socioeconomic class, family environment, ability—have led me to grow up in an environment in which, most of the time, I feel that I am not silenced, and also that I am actively encouraged to share my voice.  
Ever since I can remember, talking has been important to me as a way to be, to exist: “talking was being; being was being listened to” (Tomkins 64). I love to hear my voice and make people laugh and share and teach and get attention. When my family lived in Israel, people used to call me pipetaneet, Hebrew for chatterbox. As a student, I have always raised my hand often. It took time for me to learn to step back and let others speak. Sometimes I would get carried away: I remember in second grade getting a time-out for talking out of turn. Talking helps me to engage in classes and conversations; I often find it difficult to listen to others without focusing on my own responses and I used to assume that everyone else felt the same way--distracted and brimming with things to say, almost suppressed by the need to listen to others. 
Because I value talking so much, I try to create spaces in which people feel comfortable speaking. Until recently, I didn’t think or know as much about the value of silence and how that is impacted by cultural background. I think I unconsciously believed that it was “‘bad… unnatural,”’ or at the very least detrimental to someone’s education to be silent in class (Kim and Markus 195). My planning group was meeting to finish our lesson plan for RCF and only two out of the four of us were contributing. So I stepped back and asked if the other two had anything to add or share. Had I been silencing them? Or were they choosing to focus on listening and agreed with what I was saying? Reflecting back on this moment, I wonder, too, how cultural background impacted how much we were speaking. I didn’t realize that asking some students, such as those from East-Asia, to speak up more might be asking them to change their cultural values and assimilate to Western culture (Markus and Kim 190). Some silences are consensual and some coerced. It is important to create spaces in which silence is valued and in which silence and speaking are consensual and constructive. 
There are a few moments in my life when I have felt silenced and when I have inadvertently silenced others. At camp this summer, I was “the feminist.” Much of the time when I had an issue with something gendered--such as the exclusion of girls in sports--it wasn’t taken seriously. I wasn’t taken seriously. So I often stifled my feelings and complaints for these “minor” things. One night in particular, I remember some male staff members making assumptions about me and Bryn Mawr without letting me speak to them. Even though I was sitting right there, they were having an “ill-conceived conversation” about me without me (Carter).
Sometimes I just get so angry and I want to learn how to use my anger strategically. But I’d rather feel angry than small. 
I know I have silenced others, despite my efforts to avoid doing so. I find that sometimes I talk so much and take up so much space and interrupt others, that I am silencing them and even when they are talking I focus so much on what I want to say instead of on active listening. In this situation, I am silencing them by devaluing and disrespecting what they have to say. This reminds me of “The Sound of Silence”: “people hearing without listening” (Simon and Garfunkle). This is the sound of silence.
”Silence is electric”: sometimes it fuels you, invigorates you and sometimes it hurts you, zaps you. It changes you.


Anne Dalke's picture

You thought the essay was lacking because it didn't focus on a single event; but then of course your Sunday night posting did: about being silenced in services. You know from Creative Writing that your strongest writing that comes from writing about something immediate.

There are some larger themes in these stories: for example, your wanting to have control. Thinking here about social psychology: how we act differently in a group of people, with pressures to conform to social rules (the panopticon!). You could go deeper into interrogating this. The tour guide @ Eastern said how the institution of prison is not separated from the rest of our lives (ex: Farida's school story).  Your high school was very different, more freeing...and yet: some of the same social conditioning happens there.

In your community organizing work, there is a lot of storytelling, to find out about people's self-interests. You've thought a lot about how our environments create our interests....

Your story seems different than anything we've read so far: it's not set in a classroom, it's not about different people saying what they are thinking, sharing,'s about prayer. It's less about coming up with certain ideas than about certain feelings.

The absence of a connection with what we've read could become the basis of your next paper.