On Fearing the Silent Places
It's okay to mourn in the cemeteries of the past.
Lately I’ve been working on a new writing project that has led to me thinking a lot about the past, nostalgia, and my problem with silence. I tend to always be charging ahead, always engulfed in the present and interested in the future—often years down the road. This is definitely a strength, but it can present some weaknesses to be sure.
I think the Lord has been leading me to slow down and reflect, looking in the rearview a bit, instead of holding my foot on the gas so much. At the same time, I know so many who have been reeling from so much loss lately. So this is a bit off the beaten path, but I thought it may be helpful.
I aggressively identify as an introvert and I prefer to be alone as much as possible.1 But almost all of the time I am by myself I am listening to music, reading a book, watching a video, playing a game, or otherwise ensuring that my world is not empty of audible or mental noise.
I really don’t like silence, but I’ve never really been able to identify why.
I must always be intentionally listening to or thinking about something. Right now I am listening to Yiruma’s “River Flows in You”2 as I write this because I can’t stand to write in silence.
Silence is difficult for different reasons depending upon the person, best as I can tell.
Sometimes in the silent places we reflect on the difficulty of the past day at work. Sometimes shame shouts at us in the silence as we recall how we snapped at our children in a moment of selfishness last week. Other times silence leads us to recall the loss of loved ones: people we’ve lost because of break-ups, cross-country moves, or sickness and death.
Silence can be scary because we don’t always have control of how our minds will fill the empty space. In silence we may make the next day’s to-do list or we may recall the final moments of a dying loved one. I can’t speak for you, but I never know what I’m going to get when I slip into the silent places. Lately I find myself nostalgic for the simplicity and sweetness of earlier periods in my life. Times that were enjoyable and are sadly gone forever, no matter how much I love the present.
The silent places are scary because my mind recalls memories that are easier to forget—maybe that’s the case for you, too. This is why I think I have always, without really thinking about it, tried to evade silence with noise of various kinds. I would rather not remember happy past times, but I also don’t want to forget. And the deafening sound of silence is not friendly for forgetting.
But I’ve recently recognized the beauty of the silent places. I have learned that forgetting may be easier, but it isn’t better. At least not for me.
Remembering can be torture, but forgetting is often worse.
It is in remembering that we can be assured our experiences were real and that they mattered. The past doesn’t cease to be real no matter how much we may want to forget it. So what if we remembered things like:
Your mother really was alive and really loved you even if you haven’t felt her embrace in decades.
The child you miscarried really was your child even if you never got to hold his or her hand.
Your ex-boyfriend really was kind no matter how much it hurt to see him go.
Your childhood home really was a special place, even if you’ll never step foot in it again.
Your dog really did get excited every time you got home, even the pitter-patter of his feet is long gone.
It is tempting to erase happy memories that hurt to remember, but I don’t think we should. Of course, it’s important to be content with the present. Dwelling on the past shouldn’t create an unhealthy discontent in our hearts. But while dwelling on the past can be unhealthy, so can totally erasing it from our minds. If we aren’t careful, we can stuff feelings and attempt erase experiences from the past to our detriment in the present. Mourning the past and being content in the present are not mutually exclusive. We don’t have to choose.
You and I are complicated people. Isn’t that wonderful?
Whatever feelings we face in the silence matter, even if they’re “unproductive,” because they remind us of what was real. And what was real doesn’t stop being real, it just moves from is to was.
The silent places are cemeteries of the past waiting to soak up the tears of those who have the courage to cry them. We can’t resurrect the past, but we shouldn’t be afraid to mourn there once in a while.
It is far more comfortable to padlock the silent places with a plethora of distractions, especially through social media. But in the silent memory of the past and the mourning that follows we experience a frustrating truth of life: that which is most difficult is often most beautiful.
Whether we mourn because of what was or because what was no longer is, we must be willing to mourn. And we often mourn in the embrace of silence.
Facing my fear of the silent places hasn’t made my life easier, but the feelings I find there have made my life more beautiful.
No offense to my friends and family members with whom I am blessed to spend so much of my time.
My favorite piece of piano music, for what it’s worth.