Words That Matter and Things That Matter

We need the counter-cultural practice of silence right now

I woke up this morning to silence.

It is snowing in my neighborhood. And quiet accompanies snow. People inside to keep warm; no cars on the roads.

The winter landscape turned into a whitened world.


This month, I’ve been thinking a lot about silence — and longing for it. Perhaps because of the January 6 madness, the screaming of the rioters, the QAnon lies. But partly because of the breathless, continuous outrage on social media and in the news. There’s a continual demand to take sides, speak out, prove one isn’t “complicit” with whatever structural injustice has become viral on any given day.

Yet, when I long for silence, two familiar quotes come to mind, both by Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

And others as well remind me that speaking out is a necessary part of the work of justice.

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” — Elie Wiesel

“Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.” — Thurgood Marshall

“What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us.” — Gaton Bachelard

“Every word has consequences. Every silence, too.” — Jean-Paul Sartre

There’s another MLK quote that I’ve been reflecting on this month:

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

I emphasize the words, “about things that matter,” because not every silence leads to death. Only silence about things that matter. How do we know what matters if we are yelling all the time? If we live in perpetual outrage? If we never enter into silence to gain perspective, deepen understanding, and to discover what matters?

Right now, our public culture is marked by a sense that every single thing is a world-historical crisis to the nth degree. We are living in a time with multiple, demanding crises — climate change, economic inequality, the structural injustice of hierarchies of race and gender, and the challenges of technological society and globalization. Few generations of human beings have had to face such a set of interlocking challenges, and these difficult times demand insistent, passionate, and clear voices — those who point to the problems and offer possible solutions.

But understanding these problems and leading toward solutions isn’t about viral tweets, jumping on the cause of the day, or public shaming of those who resist the latest bandwagon. The things that matter are often a matter of discernment, research, creativity, empathy, and innovation — the things that matter aren’t always entirely visible, and the things that matter are something just beyond what is immediately obvious. We sometimes think we know what matters only to learn later that we were wrong.

Thus, we need to recognize that there are two kinds of silence involved in the work of justice and the common good: some silence is that of neutrality, ignorance, or fear; yet other silences are that of inner work, healing and insight, and making room for new awareness and activism. The latter needs to be encouraged, and the former needs to be challenged and overcome. Silence can be consent or complicity; but silence can also be mourning past words, a voiceless sorrow and suffering, pain without any shape other than groaning. It is extremely important to be able to discern one from the other.

  • There are silences that are wrong, sinful, evil; there are silences that are the most holy of things possible.

  • Some silence fuels injustice; some silence is truth in the face of injustice.

  • Silence can be indifference. Silence can also be profound empathy, a stunning solidarity.

  • Silence can emerge from fear, but silence can also be a strategy of survival by victims or potential victims of injustice and violence.

Put simply, not all silence is the same. Knowing when to speak, knowing when to hold silence — this is a spiritual practice. And it is wisdom.

Mystics of all religious traditions have known this. So many of history’s greatest activists for justice have also been history’s most profound contemplatives. Silence and justice are not opposing energies, but part of a single fabric of our inner and outer lives. Silence is not quietism. Instead, silence is guide and path toward the world envisioned by our gurus, prophets, and God.

I can’t say I know this from being one such contemplative. I know it from being a writer. For writers are contemplatives of a sort — we withdraw to discover the things that matter and to put just the right words to those things. Writerly silence is often the hardest of practices (at least for me), as I’d prefer to be in the fray, at the protest, pontificating online, and preaching prophetically. But silence is necessary for the right sentence to be birthed so that the things that matter may shine brightly in written word. Not every word does this. But the best work — the work of transforming the world — comes into being when words that matter and things that matter converge. And, I know from experience, that doesn’t happen without blanketing silence.

You can’t force someone into or out of such a silence. That silence is an enveloping cloud, the hush of the snow storm — it just is. It is like Jesus’s forty days in the desert or his refusal to speak before Pilate; Paul’s three years of contemplation and learning; Israel’s forty years in the wilderness. Silence should be welcomed for its generative power, not condemned as a moral failing.

America needs to wake up in silence.

Silence. To hear. To see a different landscape. Wait in silence until the snow melts.

We need the counter-cultural practice of silence.

Perhaps if we keep more silence instead of less, we’ll be able to speak words that matter and understand the things that matter to face the crises that threaten our neighbors and our future. We are in desperate need of the right words about the right things.

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The basis of spiritual renewal is not the guilt feelings that frequently arise in sensitized individuals in rich industrial societies. Instead, it is a crazy mysticism of becoming empty that reduces the real misery of the poor and diminishes one's own slavery. Becoming empty or "letting go" of the ego, possession, and violence is the precondition of the creativity of transforming action.
― Dorothee Soelle

The civil rights marches of the 1960s were contemplative — sometimes silent, sometimes drenched with song, but always contemplative. This may mean within the context of a desperate quest for justice that while weary feet traversed well-worn streets, hearts leaped into the lap of God. While children were escorted into schools by national guardsmen, the song “Jesus Loves Me” became an anthem of faith in the face of contradictory evidence. You cannot face German shepherds and fire hoses with your own resources; there must be God and stillness at the very center of your being.
— Barbara Holmes

To be contemplative, we have to have a slight distance from the world to allow time for withdrawal from business as usual, for contemplation, for going into what Jesus calls our “private room” (Matthew 6:6). However, in order for this not to become escapism, we have to remain quite close to the world at the same time, loving it, feeling its pain and its joy as our pain and our joy. 
— Richard Rohr

Rather than being about hiding out in the chapel for hours on end, my contemplative practice has led me to an activism that is expansively grounded in compassion and care for others.
Sr Simone Campbell 

How is it that the snow
amplifies the silence,
slathers the black bark on limbs,
heaps along the brush rows?

— Robert Haight

A huge sound waits, bound in the ice,
in the icicle roots, in the buds of snow
on fir branches, in the falling silence
of snow, glittering in the sun, brilliant
as a swarm of gnats, nothing but hovering
wings at midday. With the sun comes noise.
Tongues of ice break free, fall, shatter,
splinter, speak. If I could write the words.

— Minnie Bruce Pratt

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