IF an East Indian gentleman should be suddenly and unexpectedly placed at table in a dinner party in New York, the first impression he would get would be that of a general unrest. “General flutter” is, I know, a term that every one here will recognize as being very aptly applied to a women’s luncheon. Women are apt to come to any social function in a state of excitement, to stay through the affair with more or less moderately increasing excitement, and to leave in the same excitement, either tempered or increased by fatigue.
But when I wrote of the impression of “general unrest” with regard to a more formal function consisting of both men and women, I used the term advisedly because I was thinking of the impression that would be made upon the habitually quiet brain of the East Indian. And I can well imagine that to our Western habit of noise — noise that is audible, and noise that is inaudible, if I may use the expression — what would seem to us calm and quiet would to the East Indian seem full of unnecessary disturbance.
We are told that at social dinners in some parts of India silence is not in any way considered to be in bad form; quite the reverse. If the host and his guests think of nothing especial to say, they say nothing, and the silence is neither awkward nor dead, but quite alive with thoughts which are getting in form to be spoken, and with the restful sense which each person at the table has of not being forced to speak until he has something to say.
Contrast this habit with the necessity felt at our own dinner parties for keeping up a constant run of conversation, and the distress of host and hostess, together with the discomfort of the various guests, if there is one minute of complete silence at a large dinner party. Five minutes of silence at such a function would be considered so abnormal as to bring long talked-of indignation and possible misery.
I remember noticing once at dinner a man who was a noted scientist and constantly had a mind full of interesting subjects for conversation, but who evidently had stacked his brain beforehand with information on matters of the day, literary and otherwise, to be brought out one after another in order that he might he sure to be ready to do his share toward keeping the conversational ball a-rolling. This man had not enough power for acting to enable him to hide entirely his effort, although I doubt if any one else noticed his spasmodic production of subjects, — first, because he was a “big man” in the eyes of the world, and the minds of the people about him were too full of the honor of sitting at table with him; secondly, — but of no less importance — because each guest was too much engaged in being some one in particular himself and in proving his own conversational brilliancy to himself and to those at table with him. For they were all doing the same thing, only they were better actors and more clever to hide it than the “big man” was. Indeed, it seems rather to the credit of the “big man” that he could not hide it, for, after all, if he had dined and said nothing except when something occurred to him that seemed worth while, and that he felt would interest those about him, he would — according to the custom of his country — have been remarkably rude and ill-bred.
Indeed, this rattle of the Western tongue at all social functions is so entirely the custom of the country, and we are all so absorbed in our abnormal customs, that I doubt if many of my readers will at all appreciate the justness of my criticism unless they are willing to stop long enough to get a real perspective, and then I do not doubt but that they will agree with me entirely.
Think of the contrast between this belief in the necessity for a constant talk and the belief that steady talk not only is not necessary but more often interferes with the flow of ideas than uninterrupted silence, although, of course, neither one is to be desired.
Think of the contrast between a dinner party where the guests must be conversing all the time and one where intermittent silences are the custom and each silence is alive with actual thought which may or may not express itself later as occasion offers. People in this part of the world have not been silent in companies enough to learn that there can be as much and as happy a reciprocal exchange with those who are silent together as with those who converse. Indeed, sometimes the reciprocity of silence is far more real than that of conversation, for people can be at swords’ points with one another under cover of talk, but silence, to be alive and peaceful, must always be between friends, or at least between acquaintances who do not antagonize one another.
Silence is sometimes an awful revealer of discordant states of mind. This perhaps is one reason why there is so great a fear of silence in our social circles. Maybe also we each one are really so much more absorbed in our own lives than in the lives of those about us that we are afraid to be silent lest we should sink back into thoughts about ourselves and our own welfare, and we find it necessary to continue to talk in order to keep up the appearance of an interest in the affairs of others.
One can hardly imagine a deader silence than one where each member of the company is thinking solely and entirely about himself. Each one being self-absorbed, there is not even the appearance of exchange of thought; therefore, between these persons there is tendency to vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum in the region of mind as well as in the region of matter, and it is rather shocking to think how in such a case of vacuum as this, evil would in some form or another rush in to fill the void. For self-centredness in all forms keeps out what is good and evil always takes at once its opportunity to rush in where good is debarred.
It is easy to see that active reciprocal life in silence is much more difficult to reach than the appearance of active reciprocal life in speech. Therefore perhaps we are too lazy to work for the acquisition of silence. Certainly in a company of people there can be no real quiet — no real peace — unless silence is not only possible but comfortable, — not only comfortable but pleasant. For of course there is as great a difference in the quality of silence as there is in the quality of speech. Indeed, that the quality of silence should be alive with what is worth while is even more important than with speech.
When a number of people who meet together have acquired that happy possibility for silence, there is no question whatever as to when to be silent and when to speak. The whole habit of true balance between speech and silence is so normal that, having once acquired it, the orderly distribution of each takes care of itself. Nature tends toward health in mind and body, and having struck the normal key once, it is remarkable to see what variety and expansion of harmonies follow.
The trouble is that so many of our so-called civilized habits — especially social habits — are abnormal that our standard of normality is low. We need to wake up and raise our standards. No one ever really gained by trying for better things on a lower plane. One of the first standards which should be raised in this country is the standard of quiet. Only in real quiet do we get a true perspective. So far are we from the true standard in this matter of quiet that many people think of quiet as something dead and unproductive. How about the turning of the earth about the sun, or the turning of the earth on its own axis? Did you ever watch a sun rise or a moon rise, and feel the quiet of it? How about the growth of plants .and trees and forests of trees? Was it ever meant that human nature in its work should make so much more of a fuss than material nature in its work? The difference is this — that human nature has the privilege of choosing, whereas material nature must go in the way which the Creator moves it. When human nature chooses its own selfish way, it makes a noise. When it chooses the way of law and order, it makes no noise, even when it is not silent; and when it is silent, the silence is alive with growing power, power given by the same quiet Creator who keeps all matter so in its work. Let us think of that awhile, and it will help us toward a standard that is real.
Let us imagine a dinner party where the speech and the silence are equally balanced, and at the end of which all who sat at table are refreshed, more full of living interest and more ready for the next day’s work than when they sat down. No one is able to give a dinner like that now and have it a success. It would be, probably, out of the question to get a dozen people who would appreciate the normality of it enough to make the dinner interesting and pleasant. What is to be done then? Lectures on the abnormality of social functions to be given, with vivid pictures of the possible normality — what it is and how to gain it? No — a thousand times no! This is a reform that cannot be .brought about by any wholesale methods: indeed, it is doubtful whether any reform is deeply rooted which moves in masses. Often the surface has to be harrowed in order that the ground may be prepared for seed, but the reform is not in the harrowing, it is in the sprouting of the seed which took root after the ground had been prepared. The harrowing makes an agitation of reform which is not always beneficial, but the real work is done through the active conviction of separate individuals and grows quietly and powerfully like the growth in nature. In this question of a better and clearer social standard, in which, by the way, the balance of silence and talk takes a larger part than one would at first imagine, there can be no general harrowing. It would be extreme, perhaps, to say that there is not enough social intelligence in the country at present to make response to a general appeal, but it does at times seem so. However that may be, the only real change that might be brought about now is through individual work.
“What,” you will say, “is one individual going to quiet down a whole dinner party? Certainly no one woman could temper the clatter of an afternoon tea!” No. No one individual could at once quiet down a whole dinner party, and with regard to such reform I may courteously add it is no one individual’s business. If this more normal state of social life appeals to any one, let him start the change in himself, with no hope whatever for accomplishing such a change in others. Let him start the change in himself not alone for the sake of his own comfort and peace of mind, although both will be very greatly enhanced by more normal habits, but because the change is worth while in itself and because if anything can really open the eyes of other people and bring them nearer to real living peace and enlarge their horizon, the work in ourselves which shows in results with no persuasive word will do it. You see when we do a bit of work in ourselves and feel and show actual results, sham is out of the question. A life like that puts us out of reach of hypocrisy, provided we are steady and consistent.
The trouble in this world often is that a man sees that a thing is good, and then instead of working to prove it by living, he feels it his duty to persuade his fellow men with words. The tendency is to like to show that we know a good thing when we see it, and to be admired for our perception and intelligence. If the tendency were more to live it first and only talk in answer to enquiry, it would be a happier world.
With regard to this matter of social balance, if any individual would like to prove it, let him first make up his mind to study to become an attentive listener. If another is talking to us, even if he is talking twaddle, he will feel more or less, according to the aliveness of his perception, the courtesy of being listened to. Sometimes such attention makes him sensitive to the fact that he has been talking twaddle, and if at a convenient pause he receives a sensible answer, he quiets down and is led into talking common sense almost without knowing it. It is interesting, also, when one is acquiring the habit of listening, to see how much one hears that is really worth hearing that would have been missed entirely if one had not been thinking especially to listen. If one man has been talking and his neighbor has been listening with a real deference — not with a rushing desire to grasp the first pause to speak his own mind — then the pause that comes after the first man finishes is a live silence. For one has been giving,– the other receiving,– and the life of reciprocal exchange is still going on. Not only that, but, when the other man speaks, his own courteous attention to his neighbor’s ideas and the natural quiet which comes to every one through listening without resistance is very apt to draw forth more attention from the other speaker than he would otherwise have given.
After learning to listen truly, there will follow almost without effort the habit of giving thoughtful replies. And these two together, — deferential listening and replies that show a courteous consideration of our neighbor’s remark, tend of themselves, toward the balance of silence and speech which makes itself very happily felt in the small talk of little nothings as well as in deeper conversation of what is really worth while.
The only possible reform in such things must come from the silent and persistent effort of individuals, — but the power of the normal is so infinitely greater than that of the abnormal that a few earnest, sensible individuals can have what seems to be a wonderful power among a, large number, — sometimes without even knowing it.
We begin best to work toward finding the real delight of silence by studying to listen — to listen with real and courteous attention. The more truly we listen to those about us, the better prepared we become for deep interior listening to the best that is within us.
Listening means, in the broad sense, giving our entire attention to some one or something. If we gave our entire attention to Nature when the opportunity came, and our entire attention to the human nature that surrounds us, with, at the same time, a willingness to see ourselves as we really are, we would find the way opened within us to enable us to give our intelligent attention to law, spiritual and physical, and to our best possible obedience to law.