We have collectively forgotten the power of silence.
A contemporary definition of ‘communication’ precludes silence; at most, it mentions body language. Words rule our world. We send each other emails and texts, we tweet, we post, we blog. There is no room for silence when there is so much to say and a plethora of platforms to say it from just a click away.
Let me adapt my former statement: we have forgotten the power of the white page.
Now, rewind. Yesterday, I watched ‘Tears of the Sun’ (because it was on Netflix and because tackling a ‘Cosmos’ marathon seemed borderline irresponsible given the late hour). It’s an archetypical plot: an A-Team of stoic US Marines dropped into an African country engulfed in violent genocide on an extradition mission to save the pretty doctor with the big heart. The movie stars Bruce Willis as the unwilling Captain America who decides that what is right is sometimes more important than the orders from above. What really struck me about the movie is the fact that the totality of Bruce Willis’s mono-syllabic-one–sentence lines (and all the entire contents of the script for that matter) could not have surpassed the single digits. And it got me to thinking that the overwhelming majority of critically acclaimed movies are not particularly wordy movies. In Oscar-winning movies, it is about the silence. Characters communicate in glances, in actions, in half-formed affirmations.
Given that words rule our world, this trend seems a bit contradictory. But then it’s not. Because silence is the space in which the audience comes in. Silence is the white page that the public fills in with their own words.
This is the power of silence. Silence is a creative space. Communication is a two-way street; without silence, there is no communication. Without silence, we cannot engage with each other’s ideas in a transformative way. There is no progress without a white page.
Silence allows for mystery, and as Einstein put so eloquently: “the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science”.
In one scene, a soldier asks Bruce Willis “why?”. Bruce Willis’s answer is a quirk of his lips and a mumbled “when I know, I’ll tell you”. He never does answer the question, and so the why becomes a question to each member of the audience. When I watched the movie, I filled the silence with my own narrative, a narrative based on my experience, my environment and my ideas. A narrative which is necessarily different from the narrative created by anyone else watching the movie. How we engage, how each of us answers why, is what makes that movie ours.
And this is a crucial step. The silence is the catalyst for new ideas. Silence forces a white page on us, which we each fill in our own unique way. A show with a laugh-track that tells you when to laugh doesn’t even give you the space to create your own sense of what is funny. Those shows don’t stay with us. The stories that stay with us are those that leave unfilled spaces. These are the stories that make us think and question. These are the stories that beget other stories.
In the movie ‘Inception’, what was the dream?
Of course, I am not attempting to crucify words. As a law student (or, in defense of other law students out there, perhaps more by virtue of my own character), I love to talk, and write, and fill the margins in every book I read. Talking is very important. Even inane chatter –questions about the weather, comments on how fluffy that squirrel is- is important; talking begets more talking, and maybe an exclamation of how blue a car is might lead to an eye-opening debate on the future of the car industry. And yet, silence is equally important. The key is balance.
We live in an age of big data. Ours is a knowledge economy, where information is currency. As a consequence, we tend towards verbosity. We over-share and over-describe.
We need to repossess silence. We need to embrace the mysterious. We need to be able to live our lives without a laugh-track telling us when to laugh.
And so, poetically (after having talked about its importance for over a page), I given you the following blank spaces. Silence, to empower you.