The Sound of Silence is one of those classic songs whose meaning can be both achingly personal, yet frustratingly obscure. Paul Simon, when asked what the lyrics meant, said “I have no idea.” Well this isn’t Paul Simon’s silence. Ben Franklin knew exactly what he meant when he proposed silence and it may be the most relevant of his virtues to our modern reality. Let me explain with a little interactive demonstration.
Open up your favorite web browser, find your preferred search engine and type in the word gossip. The result, I expect, was somewhere in the range of one hundred million hits (give or take a million) led off by a series of websites dedicated to information of dubious usefulness about celebrities. Now, to be fair, that demonstration was rigged so let’s try again. This time, open up a popular news site. Browse the headlines and think about how many qualify as news and how many fall more into the rumormonger category.
We are simply awash in gossip and rumor and innuendo. I am as blameworthy as anyone else; perhaps more so. I talk too much. I am the elephant in the room, dominating conversation and expressing opinions even when they are not solicited. I am a loud mouth and, sadly, I am a gossip.
Now, consider all of that in the context of Franklin’s virtue. His precept for silence was “Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling conversation.” He might not have been thinking only of gossip when he advocated silence, but it sure fits our modern reality. So, knowing there was much improvement to be had, I embraced this virtue. My goal was simple: “no gossiping or other unnecessary speech.”
I would listen more than I talked, offer opinions only when they were asked for and generally speak only when it was helpful.
Man was it tough!
I was not surprised but somewhat overwhelmed by how much of our modern discourse is, well, not terribly valuable. Within minutes of my first day of silence I had violated the virtue several times. I stumbled through trying not to talk ill of others, bumbled around gossiping and was, not in any real sense, silent.
I was convinced (and remain convinced), however, that this was a virtue worth pursuing. After a time (and reference to a book that laid out rules for ending gossipy speech), I got better. Not great, but better. I was more mindful of what I was saying, I tried to disengage when someone else gossiped and I listened actively rather than speaking. My inspiration came from Ben. In his autobiography, Franklin wrote:
And my Desire being to gain Knowledge at the same time that I improv’d in Virtue and considering that in Conversation it was obtain’d rather by the use of the Ears than of the Tongue, & therefore wishing to break a Habit I was getting into of Prattling, Punning & Joking, which only made me acceptable to trifling Company, I gave Silence the second Place.
Silence might have been second for him, but it is first in my heart. Here are three tips for this virtue:
- Think before you speak
If what you are about to say isn’t helpful or, worse, hurtful, then simply don’t say it. When it is your turn to talk, pause, take a second and assess what you are about to say. I tried this in a meeting recently and it was amazing how many times I simply, after my brief reflection, said nothing.
- Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness–living in the moment–is all the craze now and, I think, it is a beneficial one. Use it for your virtue of silence. Really try to focus on what is being said, listen carefully and process the message. Avoid the need to respond, speak, or add your two cents unless it will help. Again, the by-product of this focused listening will often be a positive silence.
- Get literal
One of my regrets from my course of virtues was that I was not able to arrange a retreat at a nearby monastery. There was no religious motivation behind my desire; it was purely auditory. I craved their adherence to a practice of silent reflection. Just for a little while. It wasn’t to be for me, but you should think about it. Not the monastery, I mean, but a little total silence. We live in a loud, busy world. Sometimes, just being quiet is enough to make a difference. Hello, darkness my old friend…