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The Art of Silence

When Silence is the Cure

“I've begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own.”Chaim Potok, The Chosen

People are social creatures. We talk. We connect. We criticize. We heal.

Usually, we communicate best by words. But, what about silence?

Janice and Charlie: Janice just lost her dog. It’s a huge loss for her. Charlie (her beloved Pit Bull) had been sick for a long time and she’s heartbroken.

Her friends come to visit. They tell her it will be okay; there’s always another dog. At least it’s not your father. Don’t take it so hard.

Janice feels alone.

Then, Samantha comes over. She sits down next to Janice, takes a deep breath and says, “I am so sorry.” Janice cries. Samantha just listens to the tears. She holds Janice when the moment is right. She doesn’t impose; no wise words. Samantha’s just there.

And, Janice feels a healing.

Job’s Story: There was a man named Job, who is talked about in the Bible. Apparently, he lost everything that he had; his wife, family and his wealth. In the midst of his suffering, three friends came to visit. Each had much too much to say.

• They told him that there is always a reason why bad things happen to people.

• They told him that he must have done something terrible to deserve such loss.

• They told him that God must have a good reason to make him suffer.

Job was unmoved by this show of support. Like Janice, he just felt more distress.

Sometimes words of comfort are really meant for the speaker and not for the one who is being comforted. Job cried out to God for support. And, indeed, according to the legend, God himself chastises Job’s insensitive friends. As with Janice, something else was required.

The Power of Presence: In Reinventing Medicine, Larry Dossey describes a scene in a hospital. The patient was sick; very sick. Doctors provided medication, but little attention. The patient felt terribly alone with her pain.

Then a small miracle happened.

A nursing aide began to visit. She came in nightly and simply sat down next to her suffering patient. The aide was alert but present; available, but still. Her healing presence was palpable in the room as she breathed deep breathes and sang soft songs. Occasionally, the aide would touch the patient’s arm and ask if she needed anything. It was never too much. And, the patient felt a healing.

Doctors as Healers: There is an important point here. Doctors can’t do everything. And, sometimes they only provide a portion of the treatment. They deliver a diagnosis and they prescribe medicine. They spend a few moments, and comfort a bit. There is, after all, so much to be done. They do heal. But, in contemporary medicine, our doctors are rarely complete healers. They lack the time; and they lack the training.

Healing often requires presence. And, presence often requires silence.

Presence is the ability to perceive when you need to be quiet for a bit. It’s about listening carefully to the needs of the person that you want to comfort. You need to distinguish between your needs and their needs.

As you have just seen with Job and Janice’s friends, it’s not always easy.

We Are All Healers: Human beings are social creatures. We were given language to connect to each other. We can speak about our feelings and our worries. We can conceive of great ideas and argue over right and wrong.

But, sometimes words fall short. They are not required. There’s a place for presence, when silence and attentiveness speaks instead of words. Remember that you may be uncomfortable in the face of another person’s pain or trauma. And, remember that your nervousness may make you talk too much. Or, your need for answers may make you share when the patient or friend doesn’t want to hear about it.

Sometimes, there’s a value to silence.

Tune in when someone is hurting.

And, just be there.


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