At the start of the holiday season, I found myself craving silence.
As 2010 drew to a close, the need to go off alone to quietly contemplate the events of this year felt imperative, much more so than holiday shopping. With a sense of urgency and mission, I located a retreat center in the Berkshires of Massachusetts and signed up for a weekend of noiselessness, a silent retreat.
Friends and colleagues were both amused and intrigued as I spoke of my plans for intentional silence. Many remarked that they "could not do it", and I must confess to a little trepidation myself. After all, I talk for a living, and had no idea what keeping quiet for an extended period would feel like. Not to mention the anxiety of leaving behind the Blackberry and cell phone which have become wallet-important staples in my handbag.
But being silent was easier than I thought it would be. After the first few hours, I found myself relaxing, slowing down and feeling lighter. I rarely looked at my watch and spent nearly three days in peaceful, calm stillness. The silence was as restorative as a tropical beach vacation can be in the middle of a northeast winter.
I took all of my meals in silence, and actually noticed the taste, colors and aromas of the food that was my physical sustenance -- a very different experience than the fast food meals eaten at my desk while working long hours. When I walked around the retreat center's beautiful grounds, and focused on my sense of hearing, I heard the many sounds of nature that I had too long ignored. And I slept. Really well. With the quieting of my mind's incessant chatter, there was space; room for generous listening and creative expression. By the end of the weekend, I felt as though I had awakened from a long slumber, energized with a fresh perspective and new-found respect for the power of this gift. I was filled with gratitude and joy, and looked forward to reconnecting with the people in my life.
In her book, Listening Below the Noise, author Anne LeClaire says that "silence holds two faces. To be silenced is not at all the same as choosing not to speak." And it was very clear to me, as I left my winter retreat, that this chosen silence that was my antidote to the year's distractions and challenges, is the very antithesis of the silence that is suppression and oppression for many Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people. Since then, I've been pondering the contranym that silence is and the distinctions among its meanings.
In the 1980s, a group of men in New York formed the Silence = Death Project, a precursor to ACT UP, to draw attention to governmental and societal indifference to the AIDS crisis. It was during Ronald Reagan's administration that AIDS became a national pandemic. Despite the fact that gay men were dying in noticeable numbers from a new and mysterious disease, and activists, researchers and medical professionals were pleading for research funding, the President of the United States remained silent on this major public health issue. His silence was a hurtful and harmful condemnation that cost many their lives.
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is an example of a government-imposed silence that forced gay men and women serving in the various branches of the country's armed forces to hide their authentic selves while putting their lives on the line. A significant event in the LGBT civil rights movement occurred late in 2010 when President Obama signed legislation repealing the 17-year ban prohibiting gay men and women from openly serving in the military; a ban that has resulted in the discharge of over 14,000. President Obama said that the result of the repeal will be that "tens of thousands of Americans in uniform will no longer be asked to live a lie." In other words, gay servicemen and women will no longer be silenced by the United States government while carrying out one of the highest forms of public service.
The power of silence in yet another form, The National Day of Silence, was started in 1996 as part of a grassroots effort to bring awareness to the issues and challenges facing LGBT students in our country's schools. By 2001, the event had become a signature project for GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network), the country's leading education organization which focuses its work on creating safe school environments for all students. The silence that is the hallmark of The National Day of Silence held in schools across the country each April, is observed to protest the anti-gay bullying and harassment of LGBT students and their allies. As noted on GLSEN's website, "Silence is used as a tactic to provide a space for personal reflections about the consequences of being silent and silenced."
Indeed, LGBT people are all too familiar with the downside of silence and the personal sacrifices that are made by being forced into hiding in the proverbial closet.
In the past few years, we have seen a rash of suicides by young people. Children and teenagers who were tormented by anti-gay bullying, harassment and violence while attending school, who chose to end their lives rather than be victimized further by their peers; who were not protected by those they relied on to keep them safe. Young people from all over the country -- New Jersey, Massachusetts, Georgia, Indiana, Minnesota, Texas and California -- who chose death to escape the words of others used as weapons against them. These deaths shine a spotlight on the issues attendant to school bullying and harassment -- issues that have risen to the level of a public health crisis. Many of us on both sides of the human sexuality debate, have been profoundly impacted by these events. Perhaps, through our grief, we can better listen to one another.
We have created a world where all of us, including our children, receive interminable input. Instant gratification has become the standard and downtime a thing of the past. Technology has lead to impatience, intolerance, judgment and rejection of intimacy. Rather than better connecting us, personal electronic devices all too often take us out of authentic relationship. "We have become estranged from quiet and have not only developed a low tolerance for it, but an almost outright fear of it... We no longer know how to be still...We are addicted to sensory over-stimulation" observes Ms. LeClaire. Our children spend virtually no time in silent communion with themselves or anyone else. They don't know how. The absence of this skill provides fertile ground for separation and alienation, making it easier to condemn others for being different from us, including those who are gay or perceived as gay. This is proving to be a recipe for disaster as evidenced by the sheer number of recent child suicides.
Why is it that schools teach our kids about the pilgrims year after year, yet fail to instruct them on the rules of civility, integrity and respect for all living things? What if school curricula were revised to imbue children with life skills that would transform the world? Competencies in communication such as practicing silence in order to become compassionate listeners. What if academic success were measured not by a numerical grade achieved by memorizing facts and figures, but by the demonstrations of wisdom, courage and responsible self-expression?
Over 40 years ago, before the advent of the internet and other technologies, artist and poet Jean Arp said, "Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life..." In the last quiet days of this season, as we begin the new year, before the rush to meet deadlines and over-schedule our lives and those of our children, perhaps we can resolve to do things a bit differently. Just as observing a moment of silence for one who has died has long been a tradition of respect during which we stop talking, taking time to pray, reflect, grieve or give thanks for the person who has been taken from us, what if, in a similar vein, we partake in regular moments of silence to honor the living as well. To engage life and one another in a spirit of magnanimity so that children no longer feel the need to escape from their lives, but rather, embrace a world where their uniqueness and diversity are appreciated and valued.
It is said that children learn what they live. Now is the time for us adults to model the practices of grace and benevolence so that we may reconnect to the essence of life. To rediscover the miracles of our world through silent contemplation. We have to get this right-- the kids are watching.
The views expressed in this column are solely those of the author and are not necessarily those of McDermott Will & Emery, LLP