Encounters with the Counter-Cultural Power of Silence

The philosopher Pascal once quipped, “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Pascal’s deliberate hyperbole contains a truth that is perhaps more evident in our time than in his. While we seem to find ourselves more alone and more lonely than in previous generations, we are hardly quiet or at rest. We seem addicted to lives of endless distraction, especially on screens, an addiction that makes us less capable of being silent, still, and attentive.

Pascal also thought that young people, whose lives he described as “all noise, diversions, and thoughts for the future,” were deeply allergic to stillness and silence. Pascal may have captured a surface truth here while missing a deeper one, namely, that there is a natural hunger for silence whose recognition requires only a disciplined taste of it. At least that’s the evidence from the testimony of Baylor students involved in an 8-week summer program on Religion and Social Life for undergraduates in Washington, D.C.

The program involves internships, academic seminars, professional development, and spiritual formation sessions; as part of these sessions, we included regular periods of silence. Perusing the end of program surveys, we were pleased that all the parts received high marks. We were quite surprised, however, to find that the highest mark of all was given in response to questions about the importance of silence for cultivating spiritual discipline.

Numerous passages from Scripture and quotations from spiritual guides informed our time of silence and spiritual reflection. Among the ones that kept recurring in our conversations is one from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “Happiness is tasted in tranquility. It’s right there behind us, waiting for us to rest so that it can catch us up. The Sabbath is . . . an antidote to stress, the most effective I know.” Like Rabbi Sacks, the students described the benefits of silence in terms of goods both natural (resting, diminishing impulses, and easing anxiety) and spiritual (practicing the presence of God).

Intrigued by the survey results, we decided to follow up with students about why silence came to matter so much to them. The students came to see in the practice of silence a refuge from clamor and agitation, an occasion to allow deeper matters of the soul to come to the surface of their consciousness, an opportunity to be present to God and others, and a vehicle by which to recognize that their calling is a matter of God’s work in them and not just or primarily a matter of what they do. The insights of the students concerning silence and rest disclose important truths, relevant not just to youth and those that work with them, but to all of us. Pascal’s observations about the addictions of young people now apply to all of us and in some measure define our culture.

Unbeknownst to them, the students were developing a vocabulary for talking about silence and its role in their lives. They came to see stillness and the embrace of limits as liberating. Most dramatically, they came to see silence and limits as crucial to maintaining hope and vigilance in the face of injustice, the battles against which often seem so daunting as to tempt one to despair. As Sarah Coakley has pointed out in her provocative essay (“Jailbreak: Meditation as a Subversive Activity”) on the practice of silent meditation in prison, the cultivation of silence, which seems antithetical to the urgency of the fight against injustice, can be one of the means of recovering a sense of our shared humanity as well as tempering “despair and hopelessness.”

Silence as an Opportunity for Self-as-Other-Reflection

Confirming Pascal’s claim about youth, students observed that the periods of silence made them realize that they “are almost plagued by noise.” They speculated that silence is “comforting and beneficial to our generation specifically because the way we spend our time is filled with noise.” Yet, when we initially turn our attention within, our half-hearted introspection is ruled by surface impulses. We pause only to collide with our immediate anxieties over past and future, what one student called the “echoing voices of desires and complaints.” Silence is more than introspection.

In one of our seminar meetings, a psychologist had stressed the limits of introspection for self-knowledge. Taking recourse to introspection, we face both informational and motivational obstacles. We do not have all the information about ourselves that we need. Our awareness of ourselves is clouded by habits of selective attention or simple inattention. We also tend not to be motivated to see facts about ourselves that we find painful or that do not fit our operating view of ourselves, a view that is woven into a story that we tell ourselves and others to account for who we are. Instead of just consulting what we think we know about ourselves, we should attend to what others tell us about ourselves and especially to what we do and how we respond to what happens to us over the course of days or weeks. We need to learn to see ourselves from the outside as we see others and as others see us. She commended to the students a modern version of St. Ignatius’s famous daily “examen,” in which, in the presence of God, we survey our day to see what we actually did, how we spent our time and effort, and how we responded to various events and persons.

The resources we have as Christians are important here for examining our thoughts, motives, and emotions, as a variety of things—pleasant and unpleasant—are likely to surface. It helps enormously to have a faith that affirms the reality and significance of suffering, disappointment, and discouragement, as normal parts of life and also not necessarily permanent ones. The seeming pointlessness of the pursuit of such self-knowledge is countered in the Christian tradition by the assumption that self-knowledge can lead us closer to the God who knows us better than we know ourselves. In the greater knowledge of self we encounter not just a God who knows us, but also a God who loves us more perfectly than we could ever love ourselves.

Silence as Countering Noise and Agitation

In our time, overstimulation—a significant source of students’ anxiety—is perhaps one of the most palpable manifestations of the condition Pascal attributes to youth. Critics of Gen Z often say that today’s youth are overly sensitive. But in reality, they are reacting in the way any person would at this stage of life under these circumstances. The difference is that the input is more intense and more chaotic than that of previous generations. One student observed, “College students form a rather aggravated population, defined by a constant desire to do, strive, compete, and succeed.” This is especially true of the highest achieving students who are often afflicted with higher incidences of mental health challenges. Students also noted that in an environment like D.C., the agitation is compounded by actual noise: traffic, sirens, political debate, and protests. If you combine that with the experience of internal noise, there can seem no escape from what one student called “noise pollution.”

The cultivation of silence is an antidote to stimulation. The external stimulants of D.C. made the contrast between ceaseless activity and stillness palpable. In the midst of a very busy schedule, students realize how disciplined they must be if they are to maintain any kind of active spiritual life or even experience genuine rest. Cultivating silence and prayer in the face of many demands on our time makes the significance of silence even more evident. One student said, “A lot happened this summer, both exciting and nerve-wracking things, that made me desire silence and peace beyond anything else.”

Silence as the Practice of Presence

In addition to being a noisy, agitated city, D.C. is also a city of constant demands, with one task or event succeeding another in rapid succession. At receptions and meetings, people seem to be looking past the person in front of them eagerly trying to identify a more important person in the room. Jobs and personal relationships almost inevitably become transactional and impersonal as people hedge and calculate what new opportunities or connections might be conducive to career advancement. As one of our Baylor alums told our students during a career panel, people in D.C. are constantly “trading and borrowing from their future selves.”

The students found prescient the observations of Tocqueville, the great nineteenth century French commentator on American democracy. He admired much about the energy of American life, but also saw its dark side. The American, he says,

Is so hasty in grasping at all within his reach that one would suppose he was constantly afraid of not living long enough to enjoy them. He clutches everything, he holds nothing fast, but soon loosens his grasp . . . Death at length overtakes him, but it is before he is weary of his bootless chase of that complete felicity which forever escapes him.

That’s a depressing thought, but one that comes easily to a generation that has been formed to suppose that every grade, every interview, every placement exam is an all-or-nothing moment and that each accomplishment is nothing more than a means to future achievement. Such an instrumentalization of human life risks emptying the present of value and significance.

Living in this state of hyper-awareness and divided attention is associated with numerous, now well documented, kinds of harm. Students exhibit a growing awareness of the harms to relationships, to mental health, and cognitive activity. As a result, we see among students a greater social acceptance of disengagement—withdrawing from activities, media, communication, and relationships. While periodically retreats are necessary and salutary, disengagement alone as a strategy has real limits and often dire consequences for young people’s ability to re-engage when necessary. Silence certainly involves disengagement. But it also encourages us to be present here and now. In silence, we allow our mind, body, and spirit to dwell fully in the present.

Practicing silence in community, as we did before our daily seminar discussions, allowed the students to be present to one another and to be open and receptive to the conversation in ways they otherwise would not have been. Students came to see communal silence as a prelude to curiosity, wonder and to the formulation of thoughtful questions.

The students found practicing silence together to be qualitatively different from sitting alone in silence. During the course of our spiritual reflections, students often spoke about the joys and challenges of friendship and the importance of being present to our friends especially in times of affliction. As Henri Nouwen puts it, “The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”

Silence as Acknowledgement that Formation is God’s Work in Us

Practicing the sacrament of the present moment through stillness and silence enables us to be receptive to the grace of God and able to experience communion with God. One student commented, “In silence, we push out the many echoing voices of the desires and complaints of the world (the loudest of which is our own, since it comes from our mind AND our mouth), bringing the voice of God to the foreground.” Students commented that beginning with silence in the mornings provided time to become realigned with an “eternal perspective rather than living solely moment-to-moment and turning to God only as needs arise.” At a time in life when students often feel insufficient—in their knowledge, resources, and direction—and are tempted to think that they have to fill their lives like they fill their resumes, the practice of the presence of God suggests a very different way of understanding emptiness and fullness. The fulness offered by God is a gift, which requires the cultivation of attention, receptivity, and gratitude. Divine grace is a resource constantly and completely on offer, available to us without exception. Learning to receive it is in some ways much harder than following the path of arduous achievement.

As awareness of God grows in silence, so too does our sense of our own neediness and powerlessness. This dual awareness—of our need for God and the gift of his presence—allows us to receive the resources we need for growth and resilience. Recognized in silence, these resources can be honored as gifts, received in a spirit of gratitude. Without the practice of silence, our hurried minds resist acknowledging this need and the gift of God’s promise to meet it. That is perhaps the most counter-cultural element of the practice. In a city that rewards ambition, self-assertion, and independence, students were being regularly reminded of the paradox at the heart of the Gospel: that it is in weakness that power reaches perfection.

Silence as Fostering Hope in the Midst of Tragic Injustice

Silence is thus an active way of acknowledging our own limits and our dependence on others and God. Such a recognition underscores the fact that much of our story is not in our control, that we do not write our story like authors who stand outside it. Students discover—much to their surprise—that limits can be liberating.

Now, the very recognition of limits can be seen as a distraction from, or even a refusal of, the work of fighting the injustices students see all around them. The summer seminars did not shy away from issues of grave injustice. We held seminars, led by national leaders doing the hard work of combatting harrowing evil, in the areas of human trafficking, poverty, and racism. Here’s the thing about the hunger for justice among college students. They find themselves under an enormous burden to change the world for the better instantaneously. Because that’s simply not possible, the result for many may be cynicism or despair.

Spending time with leaders who themselves have spent decades fighting injustice offers students concrete examples of how to face the tragic limits to the work being done in these fields without succumbing to despair. In one of our first seminars on human trafficking, after an examination of what trafficking is and what the best strategies are for combatting it, the seminar leader presented the bleak data on the infinitesimal percentage of cases that are actually prosecuted. A Baylor student blurted out, “How can you continue doing this work when you’re getting almost no results? How do you not despair?” The speaker gave a rich and complex response stressing the importance of daily victories and incremental change. He also emphasized the growing evidence-based programmatic models for fighting trafficking. The obstacle here is that only a small percentage of funding actually goes to evidence-based programs. Finally, he spoke about the role of Christian hope in his particular calling.

Hope in the midst of tragedy is essential to the Christian message, a crucial one for today’s students. Even apart from issues of grave injustice, students came to see that, in their own lives, no decision or event or test or interview is all or nothing. Their lives must be lived incrementally, one activity and decision at a time. They came to see this partly by practicing silence and rooting themselves in the present moment and partly through regular conversations with alumni and mentors. In these conversations, mentors, who possess the objective measures of success that students crave, describe the circuitous routes—often laced with painful but not in the end debilitating failures—by which their own callings have become clear. Given how anxious students are about the future, one of the more remarkable and universally shared insights students came away with is this. Not knowing the future can be a genuine gift.

We mentioned above, and have tried to illustrate with quotations throughout, that during the summer program the students were developing a vocabulary. The philosopher Wittgenstein once remarked that the limits of our language marks the limits of our world. In our time we suffer from a woefully contracted vocabulary, for thinking about good and evil, success and failure, hope and despair. Ironically, one of the most fruitful avenues for building up a language about these fundamental human questions is through the experience of, and reflection on, silence.

Pascal’s analysis of the restlessness of the human heart recalls Augustine, whose pursuit of pleasure and worldly success led him to realize that the heart is restless not for this pleasure or that opportunity for success or even knowledge. Rather, the heart is restless for true rest, which can be found only in God, and for activity that arises out of rest, activity that seeks to respond to the voices of God in our midst, especially in the afflictions that tempt us to despair. For all the genuine worries we might have about today’s students, it is a hopeful fact that that truth continues to echo in their hearts.

Featured Image: Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Belgium, Brussels. Installation of the new Magritte-Museum 2008/09, taken by Warburg; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.


Thomas Hibbs & Mollie Moore

Thomas Hibbs is currently J. Newton Rayzor Sr. Professor of Philosophy at Baylor where he is also Dean Emeritus. He is the author of A Theology of Creation Ecology, Art, and Laudato Si'.

Mollie Moore is the director of programming and development for Baylor in Washington.

Read more by Thomas Hibbs & Mollie Moore