Silence is something we try to avoid. If there is silence in a conversation, we feel awkward, and say something just to fill the void in the conversation. The problem is, when people say something just to fill the silence, often the quality of what is said lacks substance. A good example of this is at funerals. Most people, with the exception of undertakers feel awkward at funerals. We just don’t know what to say. I have heard some of the most thoughtless comments come out of people’s mouths while trying to be comforting.
Thoughtless comments are nothing new. They are a dime a dozen. What bothers me is that when they are blurted out to grieving people, they only add to their pain, and that’s something I find grossly obscene. When my grandmother passed away, we were sitting “Shiva” (traditional mourning period in Judaism) at my parent’s house. One of my grandparent’s neighbors came to “cheer up” my grandfather. She sat with him and told him he was very lucky to have had my grandmother for so long and that she was not in pain anymore and in a better place. My dad and I were in the kitchen listening in, and I was relating to my dad what our “visitor” was saying. I told him she was making my grandfather cry. My father asked what we should do. I suggested throwing her off the balcony, but my dad shook his head. I went in and said we had to get ready for something and told our visitor she needed to go. She left feeling like she did a mitzvah, and my grandfather pulled me aside and thanked me. It wasn’t that she said anything bad. They were things we all thought ourselves. The problem was that she was having the effect of pouring salt into an open wound. It would have been better if she came and just said she was sorry and that she loved us. It would have been comforting without being painful.
When Job lost all he had, all his children died, and he was afflicted with open sores all over his body, his friends came and sat with him a full week and said nothing. The rest of the time they were there, they offered their personal wisdom and insights, and made Job even more miserable. In the end, they were rebuked by God Himself. The best thing they did was to sit with him saying nothing. When we visit grieving people in pain, it ministers and comforts just to be there. They don’t need our words of wisdom. They need to know we cared enough to come. It’s a ministry of presence.
A number of years ago, I had an emotional breakdown after the most traumatic event of my life. I sat for several months in self isolation, talking to no one but my shrink and a few others who knew what was going on, but I spent many hours not talking to anyone, and in the silence, I healed. Some might say I still have a way to go, but don’t we all?
In the story, “The Chosen,” by Chaim Potok, the Hasidic young man, Danny Saunders, is a mental prodigy, who has been raised by his father, the Rebbe, in silence. It seemed harsh and cruel, but at the end of the story, Reb Saunders explains,
“”My father … taught me with silence. . . . One learns of the pain of others by suffering one’s own pain, by turning inside oneself, by finding one’s own soul. And it is important to know of pain, It destroys our self-pride, our arrogance, our indifference toward others. It makes us aware of how frail and tiny we are and of how much we must depend upon the Master of the Universe. . . . I did not want my Daniel to become like my brother, may he rest in peace. Better I should have had no son at all than to have a brilliant son who had no soul. . . . And I had to make certain his soul would be the soul of a tzaddik no matter what he did with his life.”
Silence can be healing, but it also can be painful. My father had Spinal Meningitis when he was 16, and lost his hearing. I always thought of him as normal, because that is how I always knew him. He has never heard my voice or my mother’s, but he is a lip reader, so we have had normal conversations. When the Cochlear implant procedure was perfected, everyone urged him to have the surgery. He was sitting out by the pool at his condo and Sam, one of the men kept nudgering him to have the implant. Finally, my dad asked Sam if he knew how much the surgery would cost. Sam said about $25,000.00. He asked Sam if he thought my dad had the money. Sam said yes. My dad commented that Sam sits around the pool every day. Sam nodded his head. My dad asked Sam if he would pay $25,000.00 to listen to the crap everyone says around the pool. Later, my dad explained that he gets by without sound to talk with people just fine. He wanted to be able to hear music. For him the trauma of his deafness gave way to a peaceful, quiet world. He had become accustomed to it. Years later, he had the surgery, but it failed. All he heard was noise.
We are exhorted to let our deeds be many and our words few. Words can comfort and heal, but words can also be no more than noise. We need to be intentional about how we use words, and make sure we aren’t just creating noise. We are intended to have a healing effect on the world. Much of that healing is done in silence.
Also posted in Riverton Mussar: A Wellspring for Ethical Change