The Pleasure and Magic of Shared Silence

Friday, January 9, 2015 - 7:11 am

The Pleasure and Magic of Shared Silence

One of my favorite things to do is sit in silence with another human being in the same room.
Perhaps this love is rooted in my family of origin. We spent countless holidays each nestled into a different corner of the couch or in that battered, brown recliner, books in hand, minutes swiftly and imperceptibly slipping through the hour glass of precious vacation time. As the sun would set further and further, we would all squint harder and harder, until someone finally tore away from their book long enough to flip a light switch. If you broke the silence to quote your author out loud, it better be a string of words well worthy of the interruption.
In college, parallel silence evolved. This time, we were immersed, not in delicious novels but overpriced textbooks. Yana would sit at her desk, pouring over anatomical diagrams and pictures of cells doing whatever it is that cells do under the harsh gaze of microscopes, and I would sit at mine — an exact mirror just five feet opposite — filling Rousseau’s Social Contract with questions and underlining and all matter of nerdy, earnest inquiry. When I see Yana, a pediatric oncologist now, I still feel like there’s a knowing between us that is uncommonly deep in direct relation to the hours we spent as silent mirror images of one another.
There is the silence of family and the silence of friendship. And then there is the silence of love.

A couple reads together under a bridge in Paris, France. (Nastya Shershneva / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

I’ve come to realize that, for me, romance sustains itself on this sense of being separate together. It may soar during particularly fascinating conversations or hikes with outrageous views or really delicious meals or well, sex obviously — all these things that smash boundaries and synch two into one — but at 3 pm on a Sunday when I look up from the newspaper, piled all around me, along with a coffee grown cold, and see John immersed in his own thing, I feel so ridiculously in love. There’s just something about it — being respectful and even defensive of someone else’s quiet is far more seductive to me than flowers or diamonds or any other artifice of chivalry. It means that you’re attracted to someone’s mind, that you want to give it space to fill and wonder.

And now there are the quiet moments of motherhood.

Friends silently read together, side-by-side, on Waikiki beach in Lima, Peru. (Miguel Vera León / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).)

There is so much talk about talking with babies. Apparently you can enrich their development by leaps and bounds just by chatting to them about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, even if they’re too young to respond. And I do this. I’ve done this, almost nonstop, for a year.

But there are also moments when I just want to sit in silence with my little girl. We are on the floor, like always, and she’ll pick up a board book (often upside down) and start flipping through the pages, studying each one ever so seriously, thinking God knows what, and I just sit there and watch her and listen to her breathe and marvel at the way her will has come sprouting up. Or we’ll sit in the dark right before I lay her in her crib for the night, and I’ll nurse her, and it’s just us and the quiet and I know that it’s all, her infancy, this life, so outrageously fleeting. I can only feel that, really feel that sense of the fleeting eternal, when I am silent with her.

A mother and daughter stroll silently along a tree-lined boulevard in London, England. (David D’Amico / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

The years stretch out before us and they are not so long as I’d once thought. The details of parenting fall away — the highchair filthy with hidden smears of food, the childcare taxes, the music classes. We rock ever so slightly and she settles down into the crook of my elbow and let’s out her little sleepy sighs and I am capable of being even more grateful than I am tired.

I am so lucky to live with, to have lived with, people that guard my quiet, that need me there even when I have nothing smart to say, that know my presence as something far different than my performance. I might even be most myself in these shared silences.

Share Post

Contributor

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

Share Your Reflection

Reflections