I remember that over 30 years ago, when I visited several Quaker meetings, often the extended silences between people speaking would create a warm, benevolent communion — an almost tangible energetic communication that softly vibrated between all who were present.
The richly shared silence was sometimes as moving and inspiring as what was experienced when a member of the group rose to speak, sharing words guided by their heart, from inside the sanctuary of silence.
I was back in touch with the warm silence of those meetings, recently, when I found myself gratefully sharing time on Skype with a young person who hadn’t spoken a complete sentence for almost 3 months.
They were living at home with family and, tragically, had become very lost in an inner dreamscape of sadness and emotional withdrawal.
When the family left the room and we were alone on Skype I said, “Hello, it’s very nice to meet you,” and told the young person my name.
I then silently waited for a response, looking into the skype screen as the young person came and went from view for almost an hour.
Sometimes ten minutes would go by before they would return to look at me.
When they would pause again and look into the screen I found myself feeling very glad to see them, and my facial expression must have showed it.
Out of that feeling of happiness to see the young person I found that, unbidden, words came into my awareness that matched the happy emotion I was feeling.
They were words I’ve said to myself before, spontaneously, when I’ve been with very sad and lonely children that I knew had an unmet need to have someone really rejoice to see them and be present with them.
The words I found myself silently saying were:
“You are the apple of my eye!”
I found myself repeating that phrase to myself as I smiled happily whenever the young person returned again after several minutes away, still finding me there, looking back at them on Skype. The young person began to stop longer and would spend a couple of minutes very intently studying my facial expression, for a few seconds looking deeply into my eyes, then away, and then deeply into my eyes again, closely searching them.
After about an hour of me not saying anything out loud, but still finding myself saying “you are the apple of my eye!” to myself whenever they came back to look at me, the young person stopped and spoke the first sentence that they had spoken in almost 3 months.
They smiled and asked me:
“So, what kinds of things do you really like to do?”
I happily replied. “I really love to be outside in nature, so almost every day I walk down to the river by my house where I always see something new, where I see the trees, the birds, the clouds, and I love the smells and the sound of the river. And I love to spend time with friends and with new people that I meet!”
I then asked the young person what they really liked to do, and they haltingly answered.
Since that new conversation began we’ve met many times on Skype and we talk about the things the young person is interested in — like movies and music — and I get to see their drawings and hear their new writings.
But in addition to seeing how silence sometimes may have a very helpful value during counseling, there are other ways that we may recognize the value of silence when we are together.
We’ve all been with a friend or loved one and realized that we both have stopped talking, and that a sweet and sometimes even profound silence emerges between us.
How precious that can be.
When we are suffering emotionally, when feeling any of our human emotions that may be especially painfully present, we often appreciate our friends and loved ones silently waiting for our words and emotions to surface and come out — and to be received.
At those times of suffering emotionally, a caring, receptive silence is a wonderful gift we can receive or give to each other.
I was thankfully given that merciful gift in a time of great need 50 years ago, when I was in the grip of an unbidden madness that felt to me like a never-ending torment of hateful hallucinatory voices, and intense, uncontrollable terror.
When I was gripped in ongoing waves of such madness that became at times almost unbearable, I would sit on the floor in front of my very aged grandmother and ask her, please, to put her hand on the top of my head as she used to do when I was sick as a little boy.
During those months of madness she always lovingly placed her hand as I asked her to. We would sit like that for long silent periods as I sometimes quaked and shuddered and cried out.
The only thing she ever said to me as she reached out and placed her hand on my head was:
“There, there Michael, you must have the flu, but you’ll feel better soon.”
She would never take her hand away from my head until I felt a little better, and got up from sitting at her feet.
It helped so much to not be questioned or lectured, but for me to just receive her silent caring touch and unconditional love.
Remembering that time with my grandmother now, I believe her dear look of concern for me — combined with her unmistakable look of happiness at simply seeing her beloved grandson — just naturally appeared on her face and spoke through her eyes as she looked down at me sitting there with her hand on my head.
Her loving eyes and gentle smile seemed to communicate these kinds of silent, merciful words:
“Dear Michael, you always are and always will be the apple of my eye.”
Love often speaks out loud but sometimes love silently speaks through a merciful touch and through eyes filled with compassion.
In our busy world the value of such silence can easily be forgotten, but I believe the healing balm of silence always waits for us to claim it, especially when it may be filled with needed love for ourselves and love for others.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.