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Embrace the silence

Too many words? Here's a piece I wrote at the start of the pandemic for Frank magazine, in that (brief) time when the streets fell silent.

Words are powerful. They’re only a collection of markings and syllables, yet strung together appropriately they can be made to sell, to soothe, or to attack. Words are artificial. Whether spoken or written, they’re always a representation, because in and of themselves, words are nothing. And yet we live in a world addicted to words.

I'm perhaps more of an addict than most. I love writing, of course, and books, naturally, but more than that – I’ll literally read any words that pass before my eyes. Even this week, stuck in my house with little stimulation, I’ve ended up reading, over and over, the back of the salt packet. I adore the spoken word, too: I enjoy debating ideas, discussing books (words about words, my ideal pastime) or the to-and-fro of an easy chat with a friend.

However, it’s starting to occur to me that my – and the world’s – reliance on words may not always be a good thing. My partner is dyslexic, and spends hours constructing emails, fearful of that red-pen memory, the teacher who marks down on messy presentation and poor spelling. Other friends fear social gatherings – whether in real life or, these days, via internet dates – the quick-wittedness with words we’re supposed to display. There’s a tyranny in having to be funny and clever and charming, while not accidentally blurting faux pas we can’t take back.

Not only that, but our addiction to words has created a written and spoken babble that takes over our headspace and means it can be hard to find peace.

Whether we’re listening to a podcast, scrolling through social media posts – or speaking or typing our own words to the world – we’re avoiding the stillness that's essential to inner harmony.

In recent weeks and months, it might seem as if the world has come to a stop. There appears to be a silence that has befallen the planet. And perhaps other sounds have risen to greet your ears. Think of the Buddhist monks who meditate silently up the sides of mountains. I imagine it’s hardly noiseless up there – wind whistling down the ravine, birdcalls, a river rushing nearby. Perhaps, with the lack of ambient noise, you’ve noticed other things too. And those monks’ silence might more accurately be called wordlessness.

However, the void we’re living through now can lead us to avoid wordlessness through fear. Even though we know in theory that tuning in to a different beat can aid our sense of calm, it’s when the words stop – when we switch off the radio, put down our phone, and sit in silence – that negative thoughts can creep in. I know, because I've been there, and once, there was a time when I’d have done anything to avoid it. A noisy babble holds off the jibber-jabber of challenging emotions, so why wouldn't we fill our lives with words?

Yet we can only hold off the flood for so long. It starts to leak through in the gaps: the inevitable pauses in the babble, the moments of brief wordlessness, the long dark silences of the night (which, increasingly, some people are filling with words).

Allowing wordlessness, dealing with the throughflow of emotions that follows, and managing them with self-compassion and love, is the only way I've found of emerging from the depths. A few years ago I started to allow silence into my everyday life – and now that the world has fallen into a simmering quiet, I’m trying to embrace the opportunity it presents. When I take my daily exercise I leave my phone at home and focus on the sky above. I switch off the radio and the TV news. I relish the stilling of the constant flow.

And, when the world slowly returns to the busyness it had, I shall endeavour to continue my wordlessness. I’ll take walks in the hills, and will avoid those urbanised routes that have become saturated with words I don’t need – from advertising, shopfronts and street signs.

Like many people, I’ve also found myself speaking less these days. It reminds me of when I lost my voice for a week, and how it opened my mind to the possibilities of being wordless. I found myself thinking more openly, because I wasn't adding my spoken words to the babble. So now I’m trying to relish how the gaps between words give me an opportunity to discover stillness within. I recommend you try it too. For wordlessness might be what you need to discover the peace that exists inside.

This piece was first published in FRANK magazine in 2020.

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