I have always liked to talk.
Growing up, talking was a way to intellectually connect with other people, to share ideas, to play with words. The active conversations at the dinner table were the connection point for my family. As a teenager, I remember the kitchen telephone with the impossibly long cord that I would close in the basement door to get privacy so I could talk with my friends for hours. When I struggled as a young adult, I would always talk it out, and if I kept talking eventually I would feel better.
Silence always meant solitude. When I was with other people, I was talking. When I was alone, I was silent.
It was not until my psychiatric training that I learned the value of silence. Psychiatrists learn how to be silent – to listen, truly listen, and not just wait for your turn to talk. This was very uncomfortable for me but I learned the skill because I thought it was important for the work. Similarly, I started my own psychotherapy with an experienced therapist, and continued for 4 years. My therapist was often silent and over time, I could sit in silence with her as well.
Working with patients, I saw firsthand the power of silence. Silence allows you to observe, to actively listen. But perhaps more importantly, silence can allow you to experience your own body, the space you are in, your environment, and the emotions of yourself and others. I find that for most people, this type of experiencing is extremely uncomfortable.
The last four months as we have been coping with COVID, I have found more frequent moments of silence. I watched protests across the country and walked in a protest in my town, and I was silent because I didn’t have any words to share. I have spent more silent moments with my family and pets because we see each other all day long and run out of things to say. The silence is not always comfortable for me and I often fill the need to fill the void with speech. But, maybe, the silence is also becoming more natural. I can feel its power and wonder if maybe if one gift of 2020 is the opportunity to truly experience the moments that silence provides.