The technology of silence
The rituals, the etiquette
the blurring of terms
silence not absence
of words or music or even
Silence can be a plan
the blueprint to a life
It is a presence
it has a history a form
Do not confuse it
with any kind of absence
Romans 8: 26-27: Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
I recently led a chapel event kicking off the Day of Silence at a local Episcopal high school. I found it ironic that I was being asked to speak – for a few reasons. For one, well, I’m a talker. Big time. In high school, I had a group of friends bet me that I couldn’t keep quiet for two hours – the reward would have been a Blue Bell Rainbow Popsicle – quite possibly one of the best inventions of all time. Or, definitely the best frozen invention of all time. It’s like an all-in-one frozen adventure – you get layer after layer of tasty frozen goodness – all in one popsicle. If you, like me, have a hard time choosing your favorite flavor of popsicle, this treat is for you – because you don’t have to choose – every flavor is there. It’s like a frozen version of every-flavor jelly beans, but without all of the gross flavors that none of us want to eat. You start with cherry at the top, then orange, then lemon, then lime; and, well, you get the point.
My love of Blue Bell Rainbow Popsicles should have been enough for me to win this bet. It should have been in the bag. Well, to make a long story short, let’s just say that I bought my own Blue Bell Rainbow Popsicle that day.
I think I made it about half an hour before I broke my speaking fast and said something.
So, yeah, like I said – I’m a talker.
Also, it was ironic to speak because, had I known about the Day of Silence when it started almost 20 years ago (my junior year of high school), I probably wouldn’t have participated.
It’s not that I wouldn’t have been supportive of the idea of the Day of Silence – it’s likely that my 17-year-old-self would have been on board in some way. I wouldn’t have participated because I would have been afraid that, in participating, I would’ve been unintentionally outing myself. My silence, you could say, would have said a lot more than I was ready to share.
The Day of Silence is a student-led national event that brings attention to anti-LGBTQ name-calling, bullying and harassment in schools. Students from middle school to college take a vow of silence in an effort to encourage schools and classmates to address the problem of anti-LGBTQ behavior by illustrating the silencing effect of bullying and harassment on LGBTQ students and those perceived to be LGBTQ.
Though the conversations about LGBTQ people have changed a lot in the last twenty years, current statistics tell us why the Day of Silence is still an important and necessary event. Four out of Five LGBTQ students nationally report having been harassed in the a recent year. 80% of transgender students report that they don’t feel safe at school. LGBTQ youth are over 4 times more likely to have attempted suicide than their straight peers, or to have skipped a day of school in the past month due to feeling unsafe. Even more troubling, because of the overwhelming lack of support many LGBTQ students feel, they often don’t report it when they are harassed.
That kind of silence – the kind that keeps someone from reporting it when they’ve been harassed or feels unsafe at school – is a forced silenced. Silence that is initiated from shame or fear is life-threatening. Life can be hard, and can be especially hard for those who feel alone, or whose voice has been taken, whether through force or fear.
The silence in which you participate in the Day of Silence, the silence of solidarity – chosen and intentional – is life-saving. It is the kind of silence that allows us to know that, though things are difficult, at times even unbearably so, we are not alone. It reminds us that hope is not a futile endeavor.
In “Cartographies of Silence,” Adrienne Rich refers to silence as a plan, rigorously executed, and cautions us against confusing it with absence.
In a similar way, in Romans 8, Paul talks about the Holy Spirit helping in our weakness, interceding with sighs too deep for words. The Spirit comes in the space that transcends language, or even our ability to give voice to our desperate longings. When we haven’t the words for the depth of our despair, the Spirit is there, breathing in life and hope to even the most barren places.
There are times we might see silence as a sort of void, which it can be. However, it’s important that we not confuse that with absence, or fall into the mistake of thinking that it is in some way inactive. The silence we practice on the Day of Silence is active and life-giving.
I didn’t participate in the Day of Silence until years after I graduated from high school, until a chapel service at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond. Honestly, I didn’t know what to make of it – maybe two of the people in the room were part of the LGBTQ community. But, there I was in a chapel, surrounded in the silence of a room full of people.
That day was a good lesson for me about the power of allies. The people in that chapel service didn’t have anything to gain from being silent that day – as far as I know, their voices had never been silenced because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And yet, there they were – silent on behalf people who had been silenced through bullying or harassment – or violence, because they either were, or were perceived to be, part of the LGBTQ community. In all honesty, I still felt awkward being silent – even in a room full of people who knew me and loved me and were standing in solidarity with me. Their silence empowered me to be silent. It also helped empower me to find my voice.
By participating in the Day of Silence, we are acknowledging silence as an active force, and trusting that in that silence there is a deeper Spirit moving among and within us. It is a spirit of connection, of solidarity, of hope, and of support.
For people who identify within the LGBTQ community (whether or not anyone knows it) and are participating in the Day of Silence: take the silence of allies – recognize it , feel it, hear it , see it! And know that you are not alone.
For those of you who identify as allies, and are planning to participate – thank you. Know that your silence speaks volumes, and offers the space of safety and care to your classmates in the LGBTQ community. Your silence can save lives. And it can be just the thing that someone needs to find their voice.