With my reputation as a talker, I'm sure you, Dear Reader, are stymied at the title of this particular posting. You have every right to not associate me with being silent or being quiet. Case in point: several years ago I was a member of a weight-loss group that met to discuss problems of being overweight, dieting, stigma of being fat, etc. Now, each of us paid $35.00 (expensive in those days) per meeting to the psychiatric social worker who moderated the group meetings. Never having been accused of being reticent in speech, I still tried to keep my own counsel and to let others speak up. I'd sit in silence. . .I'd sit in silence. . .the other members of the group sat in silence. . .they sat in silence. . .the moderator sat in silence. . .the clock ticked off the minutes. . .and I silently did the math of how much the entire group (at $35 per person) was spending for 50 minutes of silence. I couldn't stand it. Usually, I ended up being the first person to speak up and throw out the conversational ball. Most of the time, a heated conversation would then begin about why I thought I had to speak every time! At least we weren't silent!!!
Now, on the other side of the coin: As a speaker and as a teacher of speakers, I have gotten a good deal of dramatic effect by use of the pregnant pause! As I used to tell my students: don't look as if you forgot what you are going to say. . .look as if you are about to unload a massive, verbal explosion! As most teachers do, I'd give them examples, and I'd tell them about the two times when I actually experienced deafening silence.
The first time was in 1968, after Hurricane Camille. I had driven home to Gulfport to assess the damage of my mother's and grandmother's houses, as well as the rest of The Coast. As I drove down Highway 90, the Beach Road where I had learned to drive, I had never seen such devastation, and I had never experienced such SILENCE as the dozens of cars were driven slowly and quietly by drivers who, like me, were speechless as to the ruin and destruction they were seeing. There were no tires squealing, no radios playing, no horns honking, no children were laughing as they used to when they played in the sand. There were no sounds of birds chirping from trees and/or street lights because there were no trees or street lights. It was like a soundless movie. . .except this soundlessness was deafening!
The next incident was just a couple of years later, during the Summer of 1970, when I was taking my first and much anticipated trip to Europe. I was fortunate to spend over six weeks there, and I got to see more than just if it's Thursday, it must be Belgium. One place we visited was Dachau, the German Concentration Camp which was one of the few camps not destroyed by the Nazi's as they were being pushed deeper into Germany by the Allied Forces. Dachau now, as it was in 1970, is a museum, memorial, and reminder: NEVER AGAIN. Never Again is written in several languages on one of the walls in the parade grounds of the camp. Never again will man's inhumanity to man be allowed to happen. In 1784, the poet Robert Burns wrote Man's inhumanity to man Makes countless thousands mourn. Yet, between then and the Holocaust, some didn't learn much. We can only work and pray that it never again happens.
Inside of the museum were very large, blown-up black and white pictures of experiments performed on the prisoners at Dachau. There were also pictures of the prisoners as they looked when they were liberated by the Allies. They were emaciated with hollow, expressionless eyes. No one spoke inside the museum. Occasionally, one could hear the sound of almost-silent sobbing. Perhaps I heard it because I was the one making it.
Outside, the parade grounds and the path to the crematorium were covered with small gravel. The only sounds we heard there was the sound of shoes on the gravel and, again, some gentle sobbing. I looked past the outside walls with its now empty sentry boxes and barbed wire to the most beautiful pastoral scene I had ever seen in person. The tall, beautiful grass was gracefully, and soundlessly swaying in the gentle breeze. Did the prisoners see the same, serene beauty I was seeing? Did they even notice the beauty? Did they think that the world and God had forsaken them? I couldn't begin to wrap my brain around their thoughts and their despair. But, I'll never forget the SILENCE of the entire visit. It was overwhelming!
One of my favorite poems to teach was one by the American poet Edgar Lee Masters. Its title is Silence. Now, some of you who were in my English III classes remember it, because I taught it. If you never read it or if you have forgotten it, you must read it. You can find it at http://www.bartleby.com/104/43.html. However, I'll give you a short synopsis. Masters writes about the different types of silence that he has experienced or imagined, just as I have done here. Some of my favorite lines are: And the silence of a man and a maid, And the silence for which music alone finds the word, And the silence of the woods before the winds of spring begin, And the silence of the sick When their eyes roam about the room…. And the silence of Jeanne d’Arc, Saying amid the flames, “Blesśed Jesus”— Revealing in two words all sorrow, all hope.
But my very favorite lines in the Master’s poem are the ones about the conversation between the young boy and the old soldier with the youngster asking the soldier how he lost his leg. And as the old man is silent; his mind goes back to Gettysburg and the horrible sounds of battle, and the screams and agony of having his leg removed, and the pain and months of recovery. He remains silent because he can’t explain or verbalize it. But if he could describe it all He would be an artist. But if he were an artist, there would be deeper wounds Which he could not describe.
[From ABW: Keep silence and think about these lines.]
Several years ago I attended a play that had an unusual opening. As I sat in the small theatre, waiting for the play to begin, there was the usual chatter, rustling of programs, and anticipation that I have seen and experienced hundreds of times. Finally, someone I supposed to be a performer, stepped out in front of the curtain, sat in the middle of the stage, crossed legged, put his elbows on his legs, his chin in his hands, and, saying nothing, stared at the audience. Well, we got quiet real fast and stared back at him. He continued to stare and we did too. Nobody said anything. The auditorium was silent. . .until someone in the audience, probably out of self-consciousness or being uncomfortable in the silence, cleared his throat. Then, the performer got up, walked behind the curtain, and the play began.
The play had absolutely nothing to do with the beginning incident, and we never saw that particular performer again. I cannot even remember what the play was about, but, as you can see, I’ve never forgotten that beginning. For some reason, it was important to not begin the play until everyone was silent and then to continue not beginning the play until someone in the audience broke that silence! I went back another night to see the beginning, and it was the same, except, as I remember, the second time someone laughed, and then the play began. Very interesting concept. . . Are you reading this, Playwright Don Redman?
Why is it that we are uncomfortable with silence? Just as I was at my fat-meeting. Well, I know why I was uncomfortable. . .it was the money and it hurt my wallet. But why did someone ALWAYS break the silence in the auditorium before the play? Is sound the rule and silence the exception?
When I taught a night speech course at Tulane U., I always had many Tulane football players. Most of them were being interviewed on TV at some point after practice or games, and it drove me crazy that as soon as the reporter asked them a question, they began answering with never a pause anywhere. “Tell me, Football Player, how did you think Tulane performed tonight?” Football Player: “Uh, Well, uh, we, uh, had uh hard time in the, uh, first quarter, uh, because, uh, they are a, uh, strong, uh, team.”
I would tell them that if they took a couple of seconds to think what they were going to say and then say it, straight out, without uh’s, the reporter would cut any pauses or silence on the tape. They can’t let an interview go out with gaps of silence. I told them, “You will then sound half-way intelligent. Don't look like a deer caught in the headlights; have a thoughtful look on your face before you speak. If, on the other hand, you fill the entire time with words and sounds without any pauses, they can’t edit that, and you will sound like a stereotypical dumb, football player!” I continued, “You are letting the reporters be in charge of how you appear and sound on camera, and YOU should be in charge!” One night, when I did not have a class, I received a phone call at home. It began: “Is this Miss Bryant?” I replied yes. “Is this Miss Bryant who teaches Speech at Tulane?” Yes! “Well, Miss Bryant, I just wanted you to know that I was interviewed on Channel 6 after practice tonight, and it’s gonna be on the 10 o’clock news, and I sounded half-way intelligent.” I thanked him, watched it, and he did! But I can't teach them all.
Now, before you get your knickers in a twist about the silent-treatment that you give your spouse, or your spouse gives you, or the agony of being married to “the strong, silent type,” I’m not talking about silence as an alternative to healthy communication between and among people. I'm not talking about the white noise you need to get to sleep at night. And I’m not talking about deep, psychological trauma as in The Silence of The Lambs, whichever number. I’m talking about silence as a dramatic effect in speech and theatre, silence in situations too great, too unbelievable, too overwhelming to merit any sound, the pregnant pause of anticipation, the silence of thought before speaking. . . that kind of silence.An old proverb tells us that speech is silver, but silence is golden. And, the Bible tells us that there is a time to speak and a time to be silent. Pray that God will give us the wisdom to know the difference.