“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Year after year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, this quote would appear, and I would read it again and again, feeling it shape my understanding of self and the world around me. I started to see silence as the enemy. I thought of it as a cheap tactic that allows you to tune in while staying an arm’s length away from the issues. You can witness the hate without really feeling it. It is safe and easy.
When work seems daunting, when current events overwhelm you and when your personal life starts to crumble, silence can become your escape. I no longer believe this to be true.
The truth is that if silence is practiced with intention, it is a very powerful tool. Silence can transform you. It can allow you to view and engage with others, yourself and your life with understanding and empathy.
Silence can mean actively listening, and listening leads to understanding. Silence practiced in this way is far from easy.
It is incredibly challenging to choose thoughtful reflection over a heated reaction.
The election came and with it a flood of hate, discrimination and violence, and when it was over we found ourselves stuck in an uncomfortable reality. My letter writing, marching and rants laced with anger slowly morphed into a calm silence.
I know I’m not the only one living in temporary silence. I’ve watched others embrace detached silence. It starts at home, where you scan over the latest true-life horror headlines, too many to list here.
You watch the president continue to make questionable decisions and share careless tweets. The responses of friends and family who share his views dig you further into a collective breakdown.
You stare at the screen and shake your head. You feel so tired. Maybe you don’t talk about it with anyone at your home anymore because they are tired, too. Then you put that part of life away, finish your coffee and go to work in silence. You begin to block out the world. This is when silence can become dangerous.
It can become the surest way to finding yourself disillusioned, selfish and incapable of feeling the weight of the injustices that plague us. It becomes your blanket, your excuse to keep all uncomfortable realities at bay. You may start to choose silence instead of engagement.
You stay silent when you see the woman on the street yelling and cursing, shamefully hoping that she is in a type of emotional pain that you will never experience.
You stay silent when the man without a place to sleep tonight lays bundled in one thin blanket on the corner. You stay silent when you overhear a man making an ignorant comment about a person who immigrated to “his city.” You care tremendously; you just don’t know what to do.
Silence is all I could give the last few months. And if silence is all that you have in you right now, it’s enough. Silence is healing. Silence is not ignoring the issues.
Sitting in silence allows you to face the issues and yourself, head on. It allows you to reflect and find a way to act. It’s OK to embrace silence for a little while. Just be sure to couple your silence with kindness.
See someone on the street corner? (The answer is yes.) Look them in the eyes, smile, and in doing so you will give them a piece of their humanity back. See a headline that angers you? Ask yourself why. Write about it. Make a sign and join a march. Find a local nonprofit organization, and sign up to volunteer an hour each week. Join a professional network and meet with them regularly. Create trust and build community. Eventually you might find that your intentioned silence has morphed into powerful, loud engagement with the people around you.
Faith Eakin is a teacher who is determined to empower youth through education, travel and kindness.
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