Unthinkable // One
“Who are you?
are you? Whose
silence are you?
Who (be quiet)
are you (as these stones
are quiet). Do not
think of what you are
still less of
what you may one day be.
be what you are (but who?)
be the unthinkable one
you do not know.”
- From In Silence by Thomas Merton
The privilege to choose silence is a powerful one.
I have never been one to opt into it. I am from a noisy family—musicians don’t often make for decent mystics, like the author of the poem from which the above fragment is taken. We declare our being in sound, and we understand other beings through the sound they make. Without this fact of communication, we may as well not be with one another at all, or so it feels when the manipulation of frequencies holds dominion over our household.
Silence is something I run from. Silence is to let something be, and I’ve been told that to let something be without doing anything is to let it die. We must always progress, to work harder, to push something to reach its goal. We must keep tinkering with it until it arrives at its fulfillment, which it will never reach. Being isn’t that. Being is letting it stay, something that I’m not accustomed to accepting.
Silence is my nakedness. I dress up in sound. As long as there is sound, there is time—time to make me look different or better, or to fix something that I said or did that didn’t sound quite right. To be silent is to relinquish control of the perception of me, to prohibit an element of performance and to bring the corporeal into focus. I never liked my corporeality.
Silence is a challenge I had to face when I was learning to do what I do now. I am a silence filler. To conquer this impulse, I had to stew in silence for long periods with another, to learn when to and when not to use the sounds I had been told were better than most everything else. I had to sit divorced from the medium through which I found both my reason and my artistry and be in my meatness, and let the room think what it would of me. Silence, in this confrontation, was enrichment, it was a learning exercise I undertook of my own volition to be a me I can’t think. It still is.
You don’t have the privilege of chosen silence. You’re locked in your body.
And you squint at me. And I look back. And the silence mediates our interaction.
I think of Merton, and how I can’t know you, but how I know you now better than I could if we were performing this in sound. I think of Cage, and your divine and accidental breathing. I look at you and your pulsing neck and your flaring nostrils and I think of the impossible gulf of power that I am called to speak into to level the earthly playing field between you and me.
I suppose a part of the reason I am here is to move things along. Everyone wants to keep on going, keep progressing because that’s good. We want you to reach the finish line and your family to feel relief that they’ve reached one of their own. We want the cliches about stages to be true. We think about how it would be better if we didn’t have to consider you anymore, about how we wouldn’t have to justify you in your room. And here you are, dragging our consideration to a halt, being still in a way that confounds us.
I want to get what you’re communicating, but I can’t and I’m still learning what I do, so I say my little prayer and touch the cap on your head. I remind you of what you already know and try to pick up some of your baggage to make the journey easier. And I leave your room calm and try not to think.