The Eloquent Silence of It

Sometimes you don’t need to fill the gaps


I have become a student of the way we pause before speaking, and hesitate to speak, and speak without speaking; you know what I mean. Someone asks a question, and someone else just sits there glaring or looking anywhere but at the person who asked the question. I am fascinated by how a face can be a voice.

Then there are people who are impatient with holes in conversations, and people who cannot bear holes in conversations, people who leap angrily to plug holes in conversations as if the holes are offensive or insulting or dangerous to them; silence frightens them for some reason. I know people who talk so continually and continuously that you can never get a word in edgewise, which I suspect is why they are talking so steadily and usually loudly. You wonder if they talk to themselves all night long while sleeping. Talk for them is some sort of wall or tower or maybe a cell.

And there are people who milk and mill and foment and fondle holes in conversations, who take the greatest pleasure in creating holes with startling and vulgar and shocking remarks; these holes to them are applause in which they bathe.

And there are people who pretend to listen when actually they are just not speaking.

But then there are people who listen so intently and attentively that you can hear them listening to you; to them silence is a colleague, a cousin, a companion.

So many of us are so afraid of silence. Perhaps it is the most ancient fear. Death and loneliness and the void. Even the womb has chatter and thump. We must have loved our first fires for their sputter and pop. Isn’t this why we love rivers and oceans, because they murmur?

Maybe we invented gods as something like powerful extraordinary stunning words with which to fill the silence; but they are silent, and we beg them to speak. Isn’t the genius of the Christian story that Christ is the Word dwelling among us?

Are languages composed more of holes than not?

Some people need a certain amount of silence before they can work themselves up to speak. As if silence were food and drink and they must be fueled for the rigors of the road.

A silent child is often a child in pain, or in fear, or discombobulated, or lost, isn’t that so? Which is part of the reason a child lost in concentration is so delightful.

Sometimes I think we drape ourselves in words and sounds just as we drape ourselves with cloth and beads and buttons; we walk into words in the morning just as we step into our shoes.

Sometimes you need to drink two or three glasses of silence before you can go on.

One of the reasons that making love is so lovely is the eloquent silence of it.

One of the reasons that reading is so lovely is the silence of the words.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Brian Doyle, an essayist and novelist, died on May 27, 2017. To read Epiphanies, his longtime blog for the Scholar, please go here.


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