We live in an age where volume matters. Speak a lot and speak often and you will be heard. Twitter and other social media outlets might encourage brevity of thought, but they do so with a necessary reliance upon a high frequency of broadcasts. The more you post, the more often you keep things fresh and new, the higher the likelihood that you will attract a following. Silence spells the death of your presence, your following, and your voice.
But can this need for noise be damaging?
Perhaps you have also taken notice of the interesting twitter phenomenon of stars pledging to stop tweeting for charity. No, you don’t get to donate money for them to shut down their accounts, as lovely of an idea that might be to some of us. You actually are asked give your cash to some cause until X dollars are raised with the promised reward of returning the celebutante’s vapid content to the tweet stream that much faster. Heaven help us if we don’t know what the star of E!’s latest reality TV show is thinking at hourly intervals!
As I am not one to regularly chastise philanthropic efforts, no matter how inane, oddly manipulative, or misguided the means of fundraising may be, I applaud the willingness of the stars to “use their fame” for something other than purely shameless self promotion. But is this really what our society, our communal networking, and our “relationship” building has come to?
We are losing all sense of the need for proper silence in our culture. As a result our journalistic integrity, our potential to produce social sages of value, and our communal ability to identify and listen to voices of true wisdom are all severely hindered and in danger of extinction.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his early work Life Together, penned:
The mark of solitude is silence, as speech is the mark of community. Silence and speech have the same inner correspondence and difference as do solitude and community. One does not exist without the other. Right speech comes out of silence, and right silence comes out of speech.
We must value such a right silence and the words of those who seek it. It is hard to imagine what some of the greatest minds in history would have done if faced with the rapid means of communication we have today. Perhaps some, like good ole Benjamin Franklin and his amorphisms made famous in Poor Richard’s Almanac, would be just as influential, if not more so, than they ever were in the eras of quills, print shops, and engravings.
But what concerns me is the following query: which voices might have been lost amid the chatter? Wit and depth are not guaranteed to be one and the same and often deep thoughts take time to formulate and some length to express.
So I wonder, which of those great men and women whose shoulders we stand upon today might never have been heard if they were living in our age of 140 characters or less? Who might have been left out if they were expected to produce something new and clever, not just every week, but every day, or even every hour, in order to be deemed “relevant”?
Certainly these issues touch on larger cultural shifts such as a lessening of our attention span and our drift into becoming what I would call a post-literate society. But what I want you to consider, perhaps as a starting place to address these broader concerns, is where there might be room in your life and community to encourage a right silence and thereby inspire a right speech.
We cannot forget that a vital part of being active and vocal members of our communities is to, on occasion, be silent. Sometimes this might mean being silent at the dinner table or seeking periods of solitude for prayer and reflection upon the Word of God. Other times this might mean stepping away from the microphones of our lives; be they blogs, status updates, tweets, or perhaps for some amongst us even speeches, interviews, or leadership roles.
There can, of course, be wrong ways to be silent or approach solitude. When I was in high school a classmate a few years ahead of me infamously pledged to not speak for a year and upon his successful completion of the task ended up on several talk shows to share his “enlightenment” from this experiment with the world. I still wonder at whether much good came from this stunt to him or to others. Our silence must not come out of selfish motives but from a genuine desire to be strengthened through the silence in order to build up the community that we are already a part of. As Bonhoeffer clarified:
One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.
Silence can be just as powerful as speech, for both good or ill. Yet this relationship between right speech and right silence is one we would do well to mind. As we live in very interesting times, we are in desperate need of voices who can offer a hurting and groaning world the right words in the right moments.
So let us not forget, even amidst the seemingly unstoppable waves of technological development and addictive reliance upon social media, that for every right speech there must also be a right silence.
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak…
This essay was originally posted in a slightly different version on my tumblr blog on June 25, 2011.