Silence, or my fear of silence, is something I’ve wanted to write about for a long time but I’ve struggled to find the words to express exactly what it makes me feel and how I’ve struggled with it. I guess it’s just one of those everyday life struggles that comes with living out a story you’re still not totally comfortable with. Basically, silence makes me sad. Weekends are often the hardest, followed by the return from holidays with good friends or family and the walk back into an empty home after waving house guests goodbye. Moments when our home suddenly swells with silence and I’m reminded once again this wasn’t how I imagined life would be. I can often catch myself as a Saturday evening falls into place, imagining the busyness filling the homes around me, of people coming in and out, kids playing in the garden, the beginning of a sleepover or a pizza night and yet mine is still. My fear of silence isn’t just about lack of noise, I don’t think it’s simply a bad case of FOMO either, it runs much deeper. What scares me most about silence is what it tells me. Silence reminds me I’m alone, it can tell me I’m worthless because I’m not making memories and robots out of cereal packets or whatever parents do with their kids. In my darkest moments silence tells me my life has no meaning.
Compared to some, our house is actually probably pretty noisy. I love having people over and probably feed an average of 15 people a week, our front door is always open and most of our house guests know their way around our kitchen and where to find the important things like mugs, tea and cake. But clearing up after an evening filled with people and reviewing the success or failure of the new recipe I tried out, the silence of a life of two where it should have or could have been more can follow me round the kitchen like a shadow. Now I know silence can be a gift, and, at times, even as an extrovert there have still been rare moments when I’ve longed to escape the clutter of noise but I would rarely chose to sit in silence. That was, until I realised the silence had something to teach me.
Now I know silence can be a gift, and, at times, even as an extrovert there have still been rare moments when I’ve longed to escape the clutter of noise but I would rarely chose to sit in silence. That was, until I realised the silence had something to teach me.
It was Lauren Winner, writing about her fear of loneliness after divorce in her book ‘Still, Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis’, who first encouraged me to face my fear of silence, to invite her to pull up a chair for five minutes and see what she had to say. It also sounded like a really spiritual thing to do, with the Bible’s stories about God’s meeting and speaking with people through the silence and the loneliness of isolation in the desert, on mountaintops or hidden in caves. In her book, which is brilliant by the way, Lauren tells a story about a young man who went into the desert to pursue a holy life and after a couple of years of fasting, praying and reading the Bible he began to worry his rule of life wasn’t rigorous enough so he went to ask his teacher for further instruction. The teacher told him to ‘just go back to your cave, pray as you normally pray, fast as you normally fast and sleep when you’re tired’. The man, disappointed by this reply went to a second teacher and asked the same thing but he responded with the same instructions to pray, eat and sleep when he needed to. Frustrated, the young man goes to a third teacher who tells him, ‘just go back to your cave’. The point, I think, is that you can’t simply pursue God in the desert; you must also begin to pursue yourself. You cannot pray until you know need, or fast until you know hunger; hunger is what the cave, the desert, the mountain top even the silence can teach us. I think it’s about working on your soul.
you can’t simply pursue God in the desert; you must also begin to pursue yourself.
Sitting in the silence is scary because I can’t pretend anymore, I can’t hide behind people or music or the TV. It’s just me, alone, but then maybe that’s just what I need. If I really want to move forward, if I want to work out who I am and make peace with my story rather than keep running from it, I know I need something that dinner parties and nights out can’t offer because it’s my soul that needs the talking to, not my diary or my Facebook page. So I’ve started to sit with the silence, to acknowledge her uninvited presence and the horrible worthless way she makes me feel. There’s something about facing your fears that can make you feel brave and with my heart beating in my throat I realised it was all lies. That a quiet house doesn’t mean I have nothing to offer, a silent Saturday evening doesn’t reduce my life to nothing, empty bedrooms can’t label me worthless. I’d love to be able to share with you a Bible verse that told me all this but I’m rubbish at remembering Bible passages besides, I don’t think what I’m learning through this story can be reduced to a couple of verses. I’d also love to tell you that after five minutes in silence I’d nailed it, emerging victorious and confident in my childlessness but I didn’t. It’s been a slow, stumbling process, but then I guess tending to my soul was never going to be quick. Sometimes when I think of God it’s the beauty of the overarching story of His affinity with the broken, His pursuit of the outsider that brings me hope and reminds me I am loved and that God has a purpose for me in this world. Other times I just rest in the glory of redemption, trusting that no experience, no matter how bad, is irredeemable. And others I’m spurred on by the words of Christian scholars and writers, reminding me the most important thing in my life is not what I do or what I have, but rather who I become.
it’s my soul that needs the talking to, not my diary or my Facebook page.
Silence still makes me sad, it still creeps around in the shadows but then I think that’s probably just grief reminding me she’s still part of my story. I am, however, no longer scared of silence because I know she can’t define my worth or the value of my contribution to this world. Instead I measure my worth by God’s standard and my contribution to this world, well, I guess that’s up to me.