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  • Reverend James Squire

The Sound Of Silence

The “Sound of Silence” was the number one hit of Simon and Garfunkel. It was the first album that I purchased. Today it remains one of my favorite songs. It takes me back to challenges at Yale and Duke in their rigorous programs. But it brings wonderful moments in the summer when I was spending time in Raleigh with my future wife when I was not scheduled in a qualifying program for advanced studies at the Duke Medical Center. It was a time of intense work and intense play and joy.

I was a hard charger who lived a life with little silence.

One verse of the Sound of Silence” describes my life without honoring silence.

And in the naked light I saw

Ten thousand people maybe more

People talking without speaking

People hearing without listening

Writing songs that voices never share

No one dared

Disturb the sound of silence. – Simon and Garfunkel

I had to learn to appreciate silence in a life filled with the furor of always pushing forward. When I think about it, I had to disturb the sound of silence. Excellence in the program I hoped to qualify for at Duke Medical Center depended on speaking, listening, and sharing of voices between counselor and patient. This did not come naturally to me! I had to learn how to experience it and live it.

The lesson of the sound of silence therefore had to be part of my ethics class for silence and right action are central to the ethical life. Students love engagement, love to learn something through academics and problem solving, but they came to realize that the course could make their life more difficult. Once you learn your core personal and interpersonal values, you can’t fool yourself by saying I didn’t know any better. “Ignorance may be bliss” to some, but not those who want to live the ethical life. Think of Representative George Santos and his embellishment of what is true in his resume. He is full of bliss, but does not see the problem with his many lies.

Once you know better it is hard to go back to our former ways. It reminds me of a former student advisee who came into my office filled with anger before his senior year. He was dating one of the superstars of his class, also one of my advisees. They broke up. His girlfriend was an A+ student who went on to Princeton. My angry student had been “hell on wheels” and was a slacker in his academics. But in order to see his girlfriend, he had to study with her. He started getting A(s). His anger that he brought to me was his words that, “I want go back to being a slacker and now I love getting good grades. What should I do?” I was silent! I merely indicated that if he wanted another girl like_____, he may want to continue as a responsible person who changed his life. That is what he did periodically allowing the old self to come to the surface, but the difference was he knew exactly when he left the world of responsibility and good goals.

My ethics students would have the same complaint. They now had choices. They would write me from college and after, commenting on the ethical life becoming more and more a second nature to them. However, for some it made no difference at all.

Perhaps one of the hardest things that they learned in ethics was that you can’t remain silent if you encounter an ethical situation. There is no neutral ethical ground. You can’t hide. If you see someone doing something wrong and don’t intervene, you are not behaving ethically. Look no further than the Republican party’s silence about Trump or more recently with the newly elected Representative George Santos. Silence with those two is not “golden.”

When I am teaching about leadership and counseling, I point out the benefits of silence. The best leaders, in my opinion, are coaches or people who act like coaches because coaches empower their players and call timeouts when a change of strategy is needed. The players are the important ones not the leader/coach. They don’t go out on the field and play. The players do. I always measured the success of student groups that I led by the amount of time I was talking. The less I talked the better. The lesson was to allow the team or student leaders to play and plan. I would jump into the mix when I could highlight a leadership observation or suggest a different strategy. When it is a coach or leader of a group, the less said the better. It communicates that you trust group to even to make mistakes.

One of the things that makes a leader or counselor effective is to realize when silence is needed. There have been times in my life when I found myself completely lost to what was going on in a group or an individual in counseling. When that happens, I become silent and see what emerges because it would not be helpful to just fill the room with the noise of conversation.

People who are insecure can’t handle silence! Recall that when seasoned leaders are interviewed by people with penetrating questions, they wait to hear the full thought that the interviewer has before they answer as opposed to the insecure person who quickly just dives forward in the exchange to get their “important” answer across not really listening to what is being said to them.

The corollary to this was given to me when our school business person was retiring. He knew that I and others were having trouble with a particular member of the faculty. He casually said, “The more this person talks, the more you should worry.”

The sound of silence is a paradox or self-contradiction in terms. You can only understand the value of silence when you first learn how to communicate, to listen, to share your voice with another person’s voice of understanding. Otherwise, it is just the opposite of silence, the noise of filling your room with a cacophony of unbridled sounds that help no one.

“And the sign said, “The words of the prophets

Are written on the subway walls

And tenement halls

And whispered in the sounds of silence.” – Simon and Garfunkel

Sound of Silence.

At this sacred time of the year, we recall at Christmas the lyrics of “Silent Night.” As Sarah Everly, Professor at Florida State University, writes in the Britannica on December 19, 2018 in an article, “The Humble Origins of Silent Night,” she states that “the lyrics were written at the end of the Napoleonic War by a young Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr. Mohr’s congregation was poverty stricken, hungry, and traumatized. “It was a time similar to what would describe the people and place of Ukraine today. “Silent Night’s universal sense of grace transcends Christianity and unites people across cultures and faith.”

This song of silence resulted in the Christmas Truce of 1914 when at the height of World War I, “where German and British soldiers on the front lines in Flanders laid down their weapons on Christmas Eve and together sang, “Silent Night.” Can you feel that moment in your soul and psyche?

Sound of silence brings peace to a war-stricken land. That should be our prayer for the new year for the people of Ukraine. It also brings peace to you and me.

Happy New Year 2023

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