In the early 1980s I was an Army officer assigned to the faculty of the United States Military Academy at West Point. I taught writing to college freshman and literature to juniors.
One of my colleagues in our shared office was a young major, a year or so ahead of me in rank. He was a hard-core combat arms officer who taught, of all things, philosophy. He was one of the most personable and most intelligent people I've ever met.
He once wrote an article in which he proposed that one of the most important things a senior leader could practice was repose: time for calm and quiet reflection. This was a bit of a departure from the notion that combat officers were men of constant action. (Sorry ladies, but in those days, only men could be members of the combat arms branches.)
He was serious, despite the good-natured ribbing and sarcasm from some of his peers and superiors. Navel-gazing they called it. He was never bothered by the comments and usually answered the criticism with a smile.
That young major rose through the ranks to become a four-star general. In 2011, President Obama chose and the U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed him as the 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This is the highest position possible for any officer of any branch of service. However small, a part of what took him to this height was a belief in the importance of silent reflection.
On a slightly less momentous level, my wife and I the have also learned the value of silence and reflection in our marriage of 42 years.
It seems that we are both aptly described by Juliet, the protagonist of the novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. She writes to a close female friend expressing frustration with her lack of a husband. As she vents, she notes, “I can't think of anything lonelier than spending the rest of my life with someone I can't talk to, or worse someone I can't be silent with.” (emphasis mine)
My wife and I have one constant in our otherwise variable days. We call it happy hour. We set aside an hour or so before dinner during which we reconnect, she, with her “cocktail” of orange juice and seltzer and I with an extra dry martini. It is no exaggeration to say that this is a sacred time for us, a time for nothing else but each other.
Most of these times involve a review of the day or plans for tomorrow. Occasionally we allow each other a forum to vent frustrations. More often, we just share bits of news or feelings.
Sometimes, though, we sit in silence. It’s not an awkward silence but a silence in which we are still connected, even still communicating.
More than once, one of us has broken that silence to hear the other say something like “I was thinking the same thing.
For a few minutes each day, my wife and I intentionally communicate in quiet conversation. Sometimes that conversation is silent. That silence is perhaps the most intimate communication of the day.
These days it's easy to suffer from sensory overload. It spills into and sometimes even defines our relationships. We live in a world where nearly half the global population has the ability to share anything, discreet or innocent, true or false, self-serving or helpful, with the rest of mankind. In 2013 nearly 86% of people on earth had access to a cell phone. Fewer than 65% had access to a working toilet.
Legendary news anchor Dan Rather once interviewed Mother (now Saint) Teresa of Kolkata. As only she could, she expressed profound truth with a wink and a grin, catching the interviewer off guard. Rather asked,
"What do you say to God when you pray?"
"Nothing," replied Mother Theresa. "I just listen."
"What does God say to you?" he responded, rather derisively.
"Nothing," replied Mother Theresa. "He just listens."
Seems like the highest ranking officer in the United States armed forces and the servant nun (who was also a Nobel Peace Prize laureate) had something in common.
And they were both right.
(c) 2017 Larry Pizzi
50 years of photographs and 35 years of keeping a commonplace book.