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Silence has two faces



November is racing month in which we are all horses. The drumming of horse hooves at Flemington slides into 'Jingle Bells' played on cash registers of yore during the Christmas season.

Hand crushing flowers (Silas Zindel / EyeEm)At a time when weariness treads the city streets and idle hope imagines a world stopped to allow alighting, the pressure to meet work targets, to leave things tidy for a January restarting, to plan the details of Christmas parties and dinners, to negotiate all the tense relationships of the year's end, and to buy, buy, buy gifts and gizmos — all this pressure and more builds steadily. Many people long for the easing strains of 'Silent Night', and indeed for the reality of silence.

Christmas and its rituals of preparation were originally shaped for quiet people, allowing domestic contentment, to time by themselves. Some chance of finding that today! We are bound into a network of personal, economic and institutional relationships that all bring gifts and demand commitments. 'Silent Night' is a dream, a sweet dream but an impossible dream.

Even the quiet people find it hard to welcome silence. We long for it when we are on the city streets or when we are being assaulted by loud music in a park. We may think idly sometimes of how good it would be to live our lives contemplatively in a monastery or spend a weekend at a silent retreat. But when the weekend arrives we find ourselves wriggling on the chapel seat, looking at our watch every two minutes, getting up and sitting down again, and longing for distractions. Silence becomes a burden.

There is a difference, too, between silence that is imposed on us and chosen, elected, silence. The uplifting silence of the most lovely and isolated landscape in the world would become terrifying and alienating at the moment we realised that we had forever lost all communication with the familiar world.

Imposed silence, too, was one of the many humiliating regimes that high-minded prison reformers have felt free to impose on people put at their disposal. In their desire to get rid of the floggings and casual brutality that were part of 18th century prison life, prison officers separated prisoners from one another and made of prison an entirely silent and solitary experience. People walked in slippers, wore hoods when led past other prisoners and were solitary in cells.

This regime did reduce violence in prisons, but at the cost of destroying prisoners' humanity. Deprived of the everyday distractions of noise and conversation, people became depressed, dissociated and dehumanised. Free conversation is central to any human life.


"One of the most effective ways of imposing silence is by imposing noise. The Romans did it with bread and circuses. Governments in contemporary democracies do so by controlling what is fed to the media."


In our public life, too, silence can be a cesspit where infection breeds. In domestic situations we may have received the polite, dangerous warning, 'We don't speak about that, dear.' Sometimes it is given out of respect for the living, sometimes out of shame or fear. This kind of silence can hold families divided.

Its effects on societies have been even more dire. Under Stalin and Hitler silence in the face of state violence and corruption corrupted its way through society at all levels, binding people together in an unwilling conspiracy of fear and denial. This is a nightmare world in which the choice seemed simple: to be complicit or to die. All people became quiet people because their lives depended on their being so.

The problem with imposed silence is that it corrupts people by making the needle of their moral compass swing between expedient and dangerous, not between right and wrong. It results in a cynical people who are ruled by narrow self-interest. It also corrupts society by identifying quiet people with compliant people, and by allowing rulers to conceal from their people brutal actions supposedly done in their name.

It may seem paradoxical that one of the most effective ways of imposing silence is by imposing noise. The Romans did it with bread and circuses. More modern totalitarian regimes have done it with military processions, massive rallies and meetings at all levels to make clear what should be thought. Governments in contemporary democracies do so by controlling what is fed to the media.

In each case the object is to discourage reflection and analysis and, in their place, to supply slogans and nurture resentments. To resist the imposition of silence requires a taste for chosen, elected, silence. This has to do with respecting the rhythms that feed life and freedom. They enable us to choose times and places for speaking our mind and ruminating, for denouncing cruelty and quietly attending to its victims, for attending to our needs and disregarding them to serve people in need.

If November is racing month, it invites us to be riders and not horses. We learn how to ride by spending hours on the track attending to what lies beneath words.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image credit: Silas Zindel / EyeEm

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Melbourne Cup, horse racing, Christmas



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Existing comments

In "Middlemarch" George Eliot wrote of "dying of that roar which lies on the other side of silence". I enjoyed the book very much and amongst the many good things reading accomplishes within us is that it imposes silence. And the Christmas season does make one want to go somewhere very, very quiet.

Pam | 30 October 2019  

Brilliant thinking and writing, and brutally honest. Thanks Andrew.

Barry G | 30 October 2019  

“There is a difference, too, between silence that is imposed on us and chosen, elected, silence. The uplifting silence of the most lovely and isolated landscape in the world would become terrifying and alienating at the moment we realised that we had forever lost all communication with the familiar world”…… We all carry a divine timeless spark within us; we are more than a physical being. Places/things/ of natural beauty can create a spiritual replenishment, as in a state of wellbeing, something akin to the residual effect of a ‘Timeless Moment’, so it could be said that they are afore taste of what our ‘hearts yearn for’, that is unity with God our Creator... Timeless moments, are silent, in the sense that they takes us into a high level of awareness, they are ‘not chosen’ rather they are ‘given/imposed’ to/on us. While augmenting the beauty of the present given reality that we are visualizing, which can be in motion, while we ourselves stand outside of that movement, while losing all communication/interaction ‘with the familiar world’… If were possible to remain for ever in this state, it would not become terrifying, rather it would be a form of eternal bliss, where ‘all’ negative thoughts, as in, the ‘loss of’ have no place to sit. As I reflect on this, I am drawn to the dilemma/paradox of possible lost love ones, as in, those who do not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, these thoughts it appears, cannot enter into this given/imposed state of bliss.

Kevin Walters | 30 October 2019  

A very thoughtful and original piece. I long for silence in public places like gyms and cafes so that I can exercise in peace or eat with others and actually hear what they are saying to me, or speak to them without having to shout. Yet no-one else seems to mind. At other times, there is too much silence - the silence of a day in my quiet and deserted suburb where I know none of my neighbours. What a strange world we have created

Margaret Neith | 31 October 2019  

I like this article very much. Silence , like all things can be used for good or evil. Today in our rapidly changing world , 'noise' distracts many from thinking deeply about moral and ethical issues. As a result we get a world influenced by the loudest and, as Andrew Hamilton points out, the corrupt and cynical. Lets regain the proper use of silence and think deeply on the issues that confront us. Thanks Andrew for this timely article

Thomas Loreck | 31 October 2019  

Thanks Andrew, a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. Perhaps there's a middle ground for most of us; somewhere between a burning desire to speak and be heard when we think we have something to say and Proverbs 17:28 caution: "Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue". We may find time to relax with our choice of music but almost invariably the notion of "peaceful" more commonly excludes sound... In my younger years I was fortunate enough to visit remote central Australia and the silence there was almost oppressive, nothing. In fact, in my later years I know that I cannot experience that again because I have tinnitus! The protesting masses may have their voices to be heard but unless our elected or appointed officials speak or address the concerns it seems now the activist gets the attention of the media through their disruptive behavior. A nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse.

Ray | 31 October 2019  

“ELECTED Silence, sing to me. And beat upon my whorlèd ear, Pipe me to pastures still and be. The music that I care to hear.” Gerard Manly Hopkins. And if Gerard Manly Hopkins and Andrew Hamilton both used the phrase, I’m taking as a hint from the Whatever. I’ll give myself the gift of silence, and hope for the gift of a listening heart.

Joan Seymour | 31 October 2019  

Fr Andrew, Your piece reminds me of being back at school. The Marist brother would hold a pin up and say he wanted to hear it drop, and we all held our breath and all talking stopped. None of us had ever seen a racehorse let alone ridden one. That was for the rich kids at Xavier. "There's a statue of Jesus on a monastery knoll In the hills of Kentucky, all quiet and cold And He's kneeling in the garden, as silent as a Stone All His friends are sleeping and He's weeping all alone" Andrew Peterson.

francis Armstrong | 01 November 2019  

One Christian community which may possibly have got the balance right between activity and silence is the Society of Friends. The Quakers also seem to know when to speak out effectively, sometimes at great personal cost and which matters are trivial and best let pass without comment. Quakers are just ordinary people in the world. Yet those imbued with the spirit and practice of their discipline seem to possess as much peace as cloistered contemplatives. I think Catholics could learn much from them.

Edward Fido | 02 November 2019  

One of your best, Andy. The thunder of hooves is no more than an adrenalin rush. No wonder we're a culture built on declarative sensationalism and not enough deep thought! I had two cousins - one on either side - both coincidentally named Celine, and who are Carmelite nuns. Once a year their vows of silence were relaxed and they received visitors. Paradoxically, their enthusiasm for life and conversation enthralled me and my view of the contemplative life altered dramatically. I notice this difference in the ways in which breaches of silence are used in the media to attack and excoriate those who remain manifestly silent, like Christ in the account of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky's 'The Brothers Karamazov'. My attention span being short, especially when I'm tired, I watch a great deal of the U-Tube channel. Lo and behold, much of it is given by clever but crazed individuals to run attack-dog campaigns against the likes of Pope Francis, liberal members of the US hierarchy, and individual priests, such a the Jesuit James Martin and the Franciscan Richard Rohr. Amazingly, the manifest silence of these men against this demonising onslaught speaks more eloquently than any defence lawyer could.

Michael Furtado | 04 November 2019  

Mum's the word.

Shuusshh! | 06 November 2019  

It was the silence that allowed the perpetrators of child sexual abuse to remain hidden for so long. LOUD Fence t-shirts "No MORE SILENCE" are worn to break the silence and allow the truth to shine. Children were seen but not heard, as these horrific crimes continued. None of us have the right to silence when it means more children are put at risk. We are all Christ's voice which should never be silent for the sake of reputation. Who will speak if we don't?

Patricia Hamilton | 07 December 2019  

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