Friday, March 8, 2013

Silence Is My Friend

There is a sound that has always comforted me. When the crash and bang of the world rings in my ears and I cannot think straight, I seek it. When a room full of people all seem to be talking at once, and department stores and fix it yourself warehouses are blaring announcements that are echoing inside my skull, I look for it.  When meetings with folks are trying to outshout each other, and highway traffic is swallowing my sanity, I need it desperately.

The sound I love is silence.

My good fortune was moving in fourth grade to a new house that had a steep slope behind it that led to 120 acres of untouched woods. It was my own personal sanctuary. I would climb down the 70 degree slope and sit atop a ragged crag of high rocks for hours, watching and listening to Crum Creek meander through my woods. The conventional entrance was at Smedley Park, off Route I in Nether Providence, some miles left of the bottom of the hill. Few people would venture to the bottom of my hill and beyond. The tree branches each had their own voices, with giant, arthritic oaks groaning against the caress of fall breezes, and elegant maples swishing their leaves in elegant harmony on summer afternoons. Bird song and squirrel barks mingled with the rustle of tall cattails near a marshy area that ran down from the Springfield Golf Course. Snakes and toads and tiny fish by the edges of the creek swirled in the clear water. The sun smiled through the thick canopy of trees, warming the soil and my rock perch and me.

I sometimes wondered, as I sat alone, if what I was doing was normal. I did frequently come down into the woods with neighborhood friends and raft on the creek, and climb Indian Rock (someone had painted an outline of an Indian long ago), and explore caves. But I just as often sat solitary, atop my giant rock perch, soaking in the smells and sights and sounds of my quiet sanctuary. It felt akin to being in church.

A short time ago I happened to see Susan Cain speak on TED. Her speech was called "The Power of Introverts." I was transfixed. I knew from the Myers Briggs test that I was INTJ, the rarest kind of personality. (I have written about my discovery of this in an earlier blog.) But to hear a total stranger so accurately describe me was remarkable. Her TED speech was based on her best selling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking ( I immediately read the book. Again, I was struck by the similarities of the people described in her book and myself.

One example is a very successful professor who was popular with his students and a sought after speaker. He played the part of the outgoing teacher, but then fled to his country home where he avoided parties and most social gatherings. When he was away from home, presenting at a conference, he walked outside, alone, between speeches, or, if it was too cold, hid in areas where he didn't have to engage in small talk. It wasn't that he didn't like people. He simply preferred quiet. Sensory overload was unwelcome, and schmoozing with strangers was alien to him.

My classroom was a very quiet place. Students engaged in conversations with me and each other, often on an intense level, but without shouting or interrupting each other. If I asked a question, I would wait quite a while before a hand went up. The silence in the room didn't bother me. When students would look at me, wondering why no one was saying anything, I would say, "Silence is my friend."

I did not attend the retirement party for a cluster of educators who retired when I did. I knew what people thought of me without going to a noisy environment where I wouldn't be able to hear or think. And, like the professor, I do not have the schmoozing gene. Both of my brothers are outgoing and enjoy large groups where strangers meet and chat. My wife and kids are easy mixers in social situations. But, as Susan Cain so aptly describes in her speech and book, there are people like me, and her, and others, who often prefer to read over talk. We enjoy the company of a small group of intimates, in a quiet setting. Sensory overload can feel almost painful, and thinking and productive work is most often accomplished apart from others.

We, introverts, agree with Confucius that "silence is a true friend who never betrays." And, when the world becomes too loud, we gently ask, "Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods" (Ralph Waldo Emerson).

Copyright (2013) by James Hugh Comey

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