I ran into a friend at the market, and she looked sadder than when I had seen her recently at her father’s shiva. “It’s hitting me harder now,” she paused, looking down, “and there was so much family business going on.” At first, I thought she meant those nasty family dynamics that can be catalyzed by a death in the family, but she meant it literally. The people around her were very focused on the “business” of her father’s estate, despite her repeated requests that these conversations wait until after the mourning period was over.
Proper shiva protocol requires that people who want to pay their respects do not talk; instead, they are to sit quietly and wait for the mourner to speak, and they follow the mourner’s lead. After all, it’s the mourner’s show, so to speak – we are there to comfort them – not add to their pain with inappropriate conversation or behavior. Why is that so hard to do? It’s challenging enough to “say the right thing” under difficult circumstances. When we are given a pass, however, where we don’t even have to speak, except to offer simple mandatory scripted words of condolences, why are so we uncomfortable with silence?
I tried to explain to my friend how different people react to grief and mourning differently, where some negate or avoid pain by becoming preoccupied with busy work or mundane matters to feel a sense of control. Looking back, I wish I could take back my words. In a misguided attempt to make her “feel better,” or “fix the situation,” I was negating her emotions, whereas I should have held the space to witness and validate her experience. Instead of giving her the “gift” of my wisdom and advice, I wish I could have given her the gifts she really needed – empathy, compassion and a silent but warm embrace.
What is Silence Anyway?
It’s one thing to shut down external noise, but what about the noise inside? Have you listened to yourself lately? Research has clocked the average person as having 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day, 95% of which are the same thoughts from the day before. And what’s worse, 80% of our thoughts are negative. Despite the books on mindfulness that I leave strategically around the house, my husband isn’t fooled. When he catches me staring into space with darting eyes, he’ll ask: “How’s the conversation going in your head?” Umm, you probably don’t want to know - it’s not pretty in there.
Is silence just the absence of noise, the mere cessation of the inner chatter? Try to stop thinking and pretty soon you’ll be thinking about how you’re trying to stop thinking. Instead of picturing silence as a mere empty void, however, imagine silence as a gateway to another dimension. Silence leads to stillness - which leads to awareness - which leads to presence, the state of being that accepts the present moment as it is. It is the mindful pause that leads us to our center, the natural place of self-regulation, resilience, and choice.
Whether you call it emotional mastery or emotional intelligence, it’s the space from which we can choose to operate and respond from our highest self, that part of us that is in harmony with our deepest values. Otherwise, the noise in our head, which judges, condemns, blames and resists, keeps us in a reactive state, and that leads to adverse and undesirable outcomes.
The Silence of Aaron
In Shemini, after the consecration of the Mishkan, (the portable tabernacle in the desert), Aaron’s two sons, Avihu and Nadav were consumed by a “heavenly fire” when they entered the Holy of Holies without permission or authority to do so. When Aaron learned the heartbreaking news, however, he was silent. He was not without emotion; the commentaries tell us that he was weeping! But when Aaron heard Moses’ explanation for their deaths – that G-d considered this to be sanctification, Aaron was silent. Silence allows us to hear profound messages. When we face significant upsets and disappointments, or when we incur the unjust wrath or accusations of others, silence gives us the space to consider - what else could this be?
We don’t all have the luxury of Moses softening the blow with consoling messages from G-d. Sometimes, there are simply no answers – at least none that we can comprehend with our limited intelligence. Sometimes life makes absolutely no sense. Someone is in distress, and you struggle for answers as to why they are suffering or why an inexplicably horrible event has happened. When we accept that we don’t have the answers, we can open ourselves up to the wisdom of silence. Then, if and when we choose to speak or act – because there are times when we must speak, and times we must act - we will serve the moment, or the person, or the situation in the right way.
So This Time I Got it Right
Last week I was in synagogue with a woman whose mother recently died after a protracted and painful illness. With tears welling up in her eyes, she shyly confessed how in the last days she was praying for G-d to take her. “I feel a little guilty about that. Was that bad?” Words of advice streamed into my head. Of course, it’s not bad! You were an amazing and loving and devoted daughter who couldn’t bear to see her mother suffering. But I said nothing, because the real question – why did my mother have to suffer so - could not be answered. Instead, I looked into her eyes with soft tearful eyes of my own, and with silence, held the space for her to accept it all – the grief and the love, the guilt and the relief. Just as we are to use the gift of speech for the good, let us also learn to use the gift of silence. Sometimes, it’s just what is needed.