“Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Pr. 18:21); we can abuse it both by speaking and by withholding. Indeed, I have had more regret in my life over things I should have said and didn’t—positive, affirming, healing things—than over things I did say and shouldn’t have. The tongue has great power, life-giving power, when our speech is gracious and seasoned with salt.
The proverb, however, lists death before life, perhaps because there is also a time not to speak, but to practice the spiritual discipline of silence. Like every middah, silence benefits us and also benefits those around us. Too often, we speak out of the drive for constant self-expression, which has gone viral in the current digital culture, rather than in response to the need or opportunity at hand. Or we speak out of discomfort with silence, a discomfort that has also gone viral. The practice of silence helps free us from these compulsions.
Here are four good times for silence that we’re all likely to encounter this week:
- When you’re tempted to say something negative. Death is in the power of the tongue. We can all remember from childhood how damaging words can be— “You’re fat; you’re dumb; you’re ugly.” Such words, or their grown-up equivalents, carelessly thrown out in a moment, can damage a self-image or a reputation for a lifetime. The practice of silence is a bulwark against evil speech.
- When you don’t know what to say. I once asked a friend who was terminally ill what was most helpful to him when people came to visit. The first thing he said was, “Don’t say anything stupid.” When we visit the sick or bereaved we often say the wrong thing because we don’t know what to say. My friend said that phrases like, “How are you doing?” “Are you OK?” and the like were not helpful at all. Instead of searching for what to say, realize that your simple presence is the most important thing. Simplicity and silence can be most powerful in the presence of suffering.
- When it’s just time to listen. Silence, of course, is essential to good listening. (And the second thing my ill friend wanted was “Listen deeply.”) Listening involves occasional questions or rephrasing of what the other is saying, but it requires a high level of comfort with silence, too. As long as it doesn’t make the speaker feel like he or she just said something weird, silence often invites the other to speak more deeply.
- When you’re surrounded by God’s presence. Silence is not just avoiding speech, but is a positive virtue. Jewish tradition provides our worship with a wealth of expression, and we can embellish out of an overflowing heart. But silence often says more in the presence of God than anything else.
This week we’ll probably have all four of these opportunities for silence. Let’s take advantage of them. Speech is gracious when it is driven by the need to bring comfort, encouragement, vision (or just plain, useful information) to another, rather than by our need to express ourselves or just break up the silence. The middah of silence reminds us,
To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven . . .
A time to keep silence,
And a time to speak. -- Qohelet 3:1, 7