This fall, I picked up Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture for the fifth time in three years of teaching. I revisit the book frequently to encourage myself to teach from a place of rest. As I read the preface, I noticed a note I had made in a previous reading: “Because we have lost our ability to be silent, we have lost our ability to be grateful.” As I reflected on this observation, I realized how much I had learned from the past two years about silence and gratitude. My struggles with silence have helped me to understand better the significance and words of Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.”
After I graduated from college, I found myself dealing with a new kind of quiet: the silence that comes when you are alone with yourself. Although I had roommates and full-time work, I had never spent so much time in solitude. Growing up, I was surrounded by a loving family; in college, I had many friends. Of course, family and friends had their low points (life always does), but I liked having them around. I was at a loss regarding how to handle all this introspective time as a neophyte college graduate.
When I Avoided Silence
My first year on my own, I was not comfortable being by myself. I filled the time with noise: phone calls to family, upbeat music playlists, afternoons on social media, and lesson planning. Of course, all of these things are good when approached properly, but I just used them as filler.
Because I avoided silence when I was alone, I felt overwhelmed and stressed when I was with others. There was no time to recharge before facing the challenges of my new life. I had moved hours away from family and friends for my job. I was adjusting to working full-time, surviving as a first year teacher, and coping with a defiant student. It felt like I did not have a support system or anyone that cared about me during an especially challenging time of my life. I didn’t know how to handle it all, and I became very discouraged and disillusioned.
I barely made it the three weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, because my trip home for Thanksgiving made me realize how much I missed my community. When the two-week Christmas break finally arrived, it was a much-needed respite. My parents were concerned about me and began to pray for me. They suggested ways to thrive rather than just survive. It took a couple months, but as the school year finished, and I became more accustomed to silence, I found myself complaining less and enjoying life more.
Setting Myself up for Failure
By my second year of teaching, I had moved on from the grouchy stage to something far more dangerous: using silence to internalize negative feelings. My life had some unexpected changes that year, and I used the now familiar silence as an escape. The real world was hard, but once I got home, I could stew or cry in silence away from everyone else. I played over in my head the way people had hurt me, and I refused to tell anyone the turmoil I was going.
Then, one night, my mom called me. She sensed something was wrong (although I do not think she knew the full extent) and said she was going to talk to me until we figured it out. For the next month, my parents called me every night to pray for me, which made a huge difference. I realized that I had used something good (silence) in a very bad way, and I was determined that it wouldn’t happen again.
Instead of filling my alone time with music, noise, and activities, I focus on being content in today. When I spent my silence on complaining and grumbled to my family and friends about solitude, I was setting myself up for failure. It is much easier to live in the past (something already experienced) or look forward to the future (which has no pain yet), but the present is the best place to live.
Grateful for Silence
My third year since graduation has thus far been quite calm and peaceful. I am now more intentional about my quiet time. Instead of letting my thoughts wander, I try to focus on gratitude and prayer. I also carefully consider what I do with my silence. For instance, I limit my time on social media and the amount of music I listen to. While music can uplift and encourage me, sometimes it is nice to pause and listen to the wind in the trees, the birds singing, and the crickets chirping.
I also try to reflect on how grateful I am for my life: a sunny day after a week of rain, a gentle fall breeze, a kind word from a student or coworker, the privileges I have as an American, the care that my family and friends have for me, or anything else I can think of. I find that trying to count the ways God has blessed me leaves me in awe of how much I have. It really is a gift – I have done nothing to deserve or earn it. Stepping outside of myself is hard. Even though it is challenging to not just focus on my own needs, I am grateful that silence gives me the chance to consider others beside myself.