07/06/2011 12:02 am ET Updated Sep 05, 2011

How To Be a Better Listener

Day and night torrents of words cascade through every building down every telephone line and out of all our wireless paraphernalia. Every public space -- elevators, shopping malls, hotel lobbies, restaurants, airports -- is plastered with some variety of musical wallpaper. In her novel, "Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit," Jeannette Winterson comes up with an ingenious solution to all this noise: She has a sky-cleaner come on duty every night and mop up all the verbal and musical flotsam that is hovering over the city. Even better, perhaps, might be for every major city to take a five minute silence break every day. Imagine it: L.A. or New York, quiet as a country village for a whole five minutes every afternoon at 4 p.m.!

It won't happen of course. Quite apart from all the "important" information we have to exchange, we just love our chatter and banter too much. There is ordinary human warmth in it, the wish to communicate without really knowing what to say. There are the nothings we exchange which simply mean "We're here together, in this together," waiting for the bus, at the next table in a café, an expression of human solidarity and friendliness in a shared shower of rain. And there is the semi-articulate groping for words when we are trying to express interest, trying to tell a person we want to know who they are.

We all know, though, how these innocent exchanges can go on longer than needed; how they can have an underbelly of emptiness, as if they were some anxious attempt to stave off our loneliness; the vacuum we feel, perhaps, just beneath our own words.

Yet no amount of words or music will ward off the demon of emptiness indefinitely. The only way, as with all dragons, is to turn and face it. To sit there in the silence; defenseless except for our willingness to listen attentively -- to listen to the silence itself. In that kind of listening the emptiness, the loneliness, can fade like mist in the sun. Sitting in silence -- not meditating, not doing anything other than sitting wherever we happen to be and listening -- we would discover that the world would start to come alive in our ears and we would come alive to ourselves. We would realize that there is a lot to be said for not speaking every now and then. We would understand Wordsworth who, in the first of four sonnets he called "Personal Talk," wrote:

I am not One who much or oft delight
To season my fireside with personal talk...
Better than such discourse doth silence long..
To sit without emotion, hope, or aim,
In the loved presence of my cottage fire
And listen to the flapping of the flame
Or kettle whispering its faint undersong..

We would be able, too, to listen more easily to other people's voices instead of our own. Whatever they may be saying, we would feel the weight of their presence; we would hear the joy and the sorrow in their heart. It is above all through the listening ear that the living world can enter us and make our life fertile. It is no mere whim that prompts the men of the Dogon tribe in Mali to whisper in the ear of their women before joining with them to conceive a child. There is a layer of truth, too, in the medieval image of the Annunciation as a stream of golden light pouring from the angel Gabriel into the ear of the Virgin Mary. When Mary was quiet enough to "hear" the light from another world, it gave rise to a miraculous birth. Creative people of all kinds know that original ideas can leap out of nowhere. When we are quiet for a while, any of us is able to hear the whispers of our own deepest longings and desires. Silence can return us to ourselves and encourage a more authentic relationship with life and the world.

After a period of silence, we ourselves will have a different sound. The energy and life that we normally disperse in a day's worth of words would still be circulating in our body. We would be gathered, contained, more present to ourselves than if we had flung words over our friends like confetti. We would begin to sense the weight of words, how potent they can be and how wise it is not to waste them. Our own speaking, after an interim of silence, can carry our true meaning more easily. It will have a weight, a stillness that will be more nourishing for others so that they will be glad to listen. It will remind them and us, that what we say and how we say it, matters. For words collect over cities, over whole countries and touch the minds of generations. Just as even now we may be voicing the thoughts of ancestors we never knew.