The power of silence

Let me start by saying this is neither a blog about education nor anything more than vaguely about forest school. So flick on by if you don’t want to hear me waxing lyrical on entirely unrelated subjects.

Back before I had my boys, I was a Quaker for a few years. Arguably, once you’re a Quaker you’re always a Quaker in spirit, even if you don’t go to meetings, but whatever. I was a very devout Quaker – if such a word should be used – attending meetings religiously (see what I did there?) – reading Quaker writings in my free time – attending Quaker book group every week.

For those of you who don’t know, the Quakers are a religious body but only in the loosest sense of the word. There is no scripture, no pre-defined set of beliefs, no ritual or ceremony. Quakers tend to define themselves by a commitment to testimonies of integrity, equality, simplicity, community, stewardship of the Earth, and peace, but not even these things are set in stone.

The format of a Quaker meeting is simple: you sit in a room together for awhile. Some people close their eyes, some keep them open. Some people bow their heads, others look out the window. Occasionally someone says something that they feel moved to say, but there’s no obligation for anyone to speak. When someone does speak, a respectful distance of silence is observed before anyone says anything further. There are no rules about what is a respectful distance. There is no defined end, yet we’re not all still there so somehow they end anyhow. Then there’s announcements and a bit of cake.

The Quakers don’t have a set of texts that you adhere to, there is no Bible or Quo-ran, what you learn about being a Quaker you learn through your own explorations of your self, and the spirit of community that is passed from person to person simply by sharing the same silent space every week. The Quakers understand the power of silence – but it is a silence that finds its voice in community.

I guess part of the reason that I don’t go to Quaker meetings anymore is because I go to the woods every Wednesday. There I sit, with strangers or with friends, sometimes we talk endlessly, sometimes we sit silently. Without explanation people move around to tend to children, climb a tree or find a bit of personal space. There is no expectation that anyone will say anything. There is no expectation that any great truths will be revealed.

The woods is my church. We are together. And that is enough.

And now we are apart. And though we have our social media, our phones and our messaging, we do not have the ability to sit in companionable silence. That power that the Quakers discovered, the power of being still and together with no expectations other than the establishment and nurturing of community, turns out to be a life-force.

I can feel the energy in my body slowly dripping away (not my physical energy – come on!), the energy that makes thinking and hoping and planning possible. The energy that inspires us to be new things and imagine new futures. I am here, and I am writing because it’s a type of catharsis, but it is hard to find the right words. The sentences don’t flow, the backspace key is being worn out.

I keep reminding myself that I am not alone. There are millions of people feeling the same way right this very second. Billions, even. But there’s alone, and then there’s alone.

I always hated that Orson Welles quote about being born alone and dying alone. But although I didn’t like it, there were many times when I wondered whether he might be right. Today, right now, I’m sure he’s wrong. Because this, right now, is alone, and this is not how humans are meant to live. We need our companionable silences, our laughter and hugs. We need to argue and make up, to slam doors and help carry groceries. We need the full range of human interactions.

Today I am looking to find the strength in this silence. Today I am learning the true power of together. Today I will draw on all that I know and have felt and have done and remember that I am not alone – that none of us is alone – even when we’re completely alone.

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