In my elementary school growing up we had an amazing music program. It started in fifth grade, when you had to choose your instrument. My oldest brother, Dan, played the french horn, and my middle brother, Aaron, played the trumpet. So, naturally, I chose the tuba.
While the tuba doesn’t get a lot of notes in a symphony, the ones you do get are juicy. So even though you have to be quiet for a lot of the time, the moments when you arrive are memorable. I know, this might not be everyone’s version of fun, but if you’ve listened to a few episodes, you know me by now, and I’m embracing my true self. So indulge me, please.
Nowhere is that more true than in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, which opens with a brass fanfare in the horns that makes its way down through the trombones and to the tuba. Again, you can laugh, but come on. That’s juicy.
The trick, of course, is that you have to be quiet at the right times so you can make sound at the right times. If you come in at the right time: great. If you come in at the wrong time: big problem. And my freshman year of college, when we played this piece, I messed up.
I thought I counted right. I thought I was silent for the right number of measures. I came in loud and proud — and wrong. I totally botched the opening and made it sound like a train wreck. In front of a thousand people.
For me, that was an early and lasting life lesson about silence and noise — or, more specifically, about silence and speech. There is a time and a place for noises, whether they come from a tuba in an orchestra concert, or from a human mind and heart in a conversation or on a page.
While they aren’t always harmonious, the right notes or words at the right time are meaningful — they contribute to the conversation, they deepen understanding. Notes or words at the wrong time can result in an embarrassing moment (like me at the concert) or, worse, to misunderstanding, anger, and even violence.
I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions of speech and silence lately. Many people seem to feel a need to make a statement about the Israel-Hamas war. And many others seem to feel a need to judge everyone else for whether or not they’ve made a statement and what those statements have said or haven’t said.
People on social media go after one another for mentioning this group and not mentioning that one. There’s a lot of talk about “moral clarity” and “erasure.” Most of the time, I feel more heat than light from it all.
Part of what I sense is driving this is that making noise, speaking — it gives us a feeling of some kind of control. And in a time when so much is out of our control, that feels like it can help.
For me, I think some of it comes from my own conditioning. Since I was a child, the words of Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel have been deeply ingrained in me: “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
And since I have this little megaphone in the palm of my hand, I feel like I should be using it to speak up — and I judge myself a moral failure if I don’t.
But Elie Wiesel wrote those words long before the age of Twitter or TikTok. And the more I think about it, the more I think that, yes, of course, we have to speak up — at the same time, we need to speak up in the right ways at the right time and with the right words. And, when it comes to finding the right words and the right time and the right place, we actually need to be quiet before we speak.
I’ve been thinking lately that there are multiple kinds of silence: There’s the silence of failing to speak up when we know what our deepest and highest selves call us to do. I might call that a silence of fear.
This is the silence I think Elie Wiesel was talking about — the silence we mean when we say, “I will not be silent.” It’s the silence of standing by while our neighbor’s blood is shed. It’s not good.
The irony is that when we experience that kind of silence, I find it’s important to actually be silent — to get quiet and get clear. I call this a silence of presence.
A silence of presence isn’t imposed on us by our fear. No, it’s a silence we intentionally enter in order to quiet down, clear our minds, and reconnect with our deepest and highest selves. It’s a silence in which we can be present with ourselves. It’s a silence that allows us to hear the still, small voice within us.
That little device so many of us hold in our hands — I think it often conditions us to feel like we can’t be silent, because we have the possibility of speaking all the time. We can post. We can tweet. We can snap. And if we’re not doing those things, then we’re failing a moral test.
I want to give you permission to press pause on that assumption, though. What if you put down the phone? What would happen if you didn’t fire off an angry message?
Or, let’s say you didn’t put it down, but you changed the way you used your phone? What if, instead, you entered into that second kind of silence — the silence of presence, the silence of getting clear? (Actually, if you’re listening to this on your phone, you’re doing exactly that right now — good job!)
I’m not saying don’t speak. Not at all. But what I want to encourage all of us to do is speak more mindfully. This is a practice known in Judaism as shemirat hadibbur, or practicing mindful speech.
And one of the most useful teachings I’ve learned for practicing shemirat hadibbur is a lesson from Buddhism, called the five qualities of right speech. They’re often formulated as questions to ask yourself before speaking. Here they are:
- Are these words timely? Is now the right time to speak them? Will they be heard by the people who need to hear them? Are they open to receiving them?
- Are they true? This is an especially important question right now, when information is flying fast. Do I actually know that what I’m saying is true, or am I making assumptions? If someone asked me, “How do you know that’s true?” do I have an answer I really trust?
- Are they gentle? So many of our words today — especially on social media — are spoken harshly, as though the goal is to score points. But if you ever heard Elie Wiesel speak, you might remember that he spoke in a whisper. Like many great examples of wisdom, his words were gentle — and they carried even greater moral authority as a result.
- Are they beneficial? Can I craft my words to be helpful rather than harmful? Will they lead to an alleviation of suffering–for myself and for others?
- Are they spoken with goodwill? Am I speaking these words with a sense in my heart that I genuinely want what is best for those to whom I’m speaking? Even if they may not be people I love, can I wish them goodwill — and can my words reflect that?
These are questions to ask yourself during those moments of quiet reflection. In recent weeks I’ve found myself going to them a lot. And in those moments of silence, I’ve found they help me restrain some of my impulses.
They help my speech to be, I hope, a bit wiser and more mindful. And I’ll add that asking these questions in the midst of my own silent reflection helps bring some peace within my own heart and mind during these times of so much pain and heartache.
I hope you’ll try out this practice for yourself. Maybe consider sharing this episode with someone you think would benefit from hearing it. And let me know how it goes. It really does mean so much when you write. I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Blessings for the journey. Know that I’m on it with you.