The Silent Retreat – Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Changing Planes” Part 2

Contemplation Missing from the Toolkit

Decades ago, my grandmother went on a silent retreat. It seemed odd for a family member to go off to some secluded place and remain silent in order to wait for the Lord’s message, but then again few families follow the Quaker tradition.

Quakers are just as malleable a definition of a sect as any other, with conservatives and liberals in each part of the United States. Still, there are some core tenets. Ours tended to be a more contemplative religion, where in the most extreme cases (in the Northeast part of the U.S.), services gathered on Sundays to a chapel where there was no pew, and the aisles for the congregation faced each other. From there, a “service” was an hour and a half of silence. Knowing what I know now about Vipassana meditation and the power of focused attention, I would have given anything to have replaced my standard church affair of 18 years with something like this from the Northeast. Our services only had a small period of “open worship”, usually ten minutes, where this silence took place. Unfortunately, it was also a time where any member of the congregation could stand up and offer their grievances. Seems democratic at the outset, but what eventually happened is the same few people stood up to virtue signal or grandstand. It was something I dreaded during my time going to church. What was it that people despised about silence?

All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.

Blaise Pascal

Pascal was not the only philosopher who believed in the power of abstained speech. Ludwig Wittgenstein famously chimed, after years of philosophical investigations into the power of language as a game, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” This is a tough sell, particularly for those in power who feel as though getting on the right side of history means putting out any kind of statement, regardless of its quality or content. It is only that speaking is better than not.

Indeed if there is anything to be said for the fate of our public forum since the arrival of social media, we could say that Americans are driving themselves crazy by getting ahead of the story. The night after the violence on Capitol Hill, Trump read off from a transcript his “desire” for peaceful transitions of power to Joe Biden. Clearly his only “desire” to get in front of a camera was to ward off attempts by Congress members to enable use of the 25th Amendment (and because they took Twitter away from him).

Like the demonstrations for Black Lives Matter in June and July, every public persona is trying to get ahead of this and offer their own interpretation in high volume. Some claim this is a coup, others a riot, some a protest. Some turn to binary thinking and claim that Capitol Hill is not as bad as the rioting and looting that occurred in the far minority during previously said protests. As if one being “worse” immediately disqualifies or emboldens the other. As if we forgot that peaceful protestors were fought against with violence, while looters were free to do their business. And the rioters on Capitol Hill, in a bizarre twist, exited the building with whoops like they had just gotten off of Space Mountain in Disney World, taking selfies with the “cast” of SWAT members on the way out. One wonders why any comparison of any kind need be made at all between the two displays of violence? Can we not agree that directed violence typically produces the opposite of the intended results?

For someone who prefers the power of silence, and sees its benevolent use in all civilizations and cultures, from the stoic quiet strength of Rosa Parks, to the power of the contemplatives in Buddhist and Christian religious sects, I have grown weary of the loquacious 21st century. It clashes with several tropes of aging that I was taught as a child. One of the most important ones was, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” The kneejerk reaction of this claim is to assume that, because a person keeps to themselves, they are a toxic person, keeping their tongues rollicking in their mouths while no speech leaves. The truth of this phrase never struck me as a question of intent, but impact. A believer of silence understands that speech, and the words that they carry, are very powerful, and the practice of a social being is to understand what works and what does not in a given context. We will never be perfect, but silence lowers the chances to sting our interlocutor. And when we feel most compelled to speak, sometimes that anger leads to no good words at all.

Marilynne Robinson wrote of this phenomenon of filling the air with words in the final essay entitled “Slander” in her 2018 collection What Are We Doing Here? She invokes the Bible:

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.

James 3:5-6

In the essay, what little time remained for Robinson and her mother to be together was interrupted by Fox News. The once kind and gentle mother gave herself over to what she was told was a personal attack on her country. And Marilynne, who felt as though her mother had been coopted by forces beyond the mother’s immediate surroundings, never got that time back. The opportunity costs of a forked tongue can be too painful to bear.

Anyone my age with parents in this country knows what Robinson is talking about.

The Silence of the Asonu

Le Guin begins the next chapter of Changing Planes with the sentence, “The silence of the Asonu is proverbial.” The last word is pulling double duty here. Every tourist who has the ability – like our narrator does – to change dimensions, knows of the Asonu’s reticence in speaking, hence the use of “proverbial” as a stereotype well-known among those who speak of the Asonu people. But proverbial also comes from “proverb”, which involves a desire for a simple truth. The Asonu, according to our narrator, speak the most as children, but as they become acclimated to the culture of their own kind, and to the pastoral lifestyle that the Asonu have with their domesticated animals, their use of speech wanes. Several have tried to translate the words and phrases of the Asonu, but their results have led to less than originally hoped. Le Guin remarks on the stereotype we all carry of the slow to speak kind: since they speak so little, when they do it must be thought to be of the highest wisdom. But many of the phrases end up being ones like “hot” or “it will never cease”. Basically responses that are contextual and are the kind we all say to a partner when living the doldrum days where little happens. only as methods of teaching their young for what to bring themselves closer to, as well as what to avoid.

Why bother traveling with the Asonu? For some, the silence is a reprieve from other dimensions, where communication is encouraged. They may go on silent retreat with the Asonu. For some it is the reverse: they love communicating so much that they finally have a free psychoanalyst and may follow them around, spouting nonsense into their ears, without having to worry about a response.

After years of research, scientists translated a credo of what the Asonu seek: “It [truth] is not in any object or experience of our mortal life. We [the Asonu] live among appearances, on the verge of Spiritual Truth. We must be as ready for it as it is ready for us…” It seems that in special occasions, however, singing and humming occur, whether it is in the meditative state of guiding cows and sheep, or at a wedding ceremony, where the Asonu produce complex hums and vocalizations, and are known to practice for days before the wedding takes place. It appears that language is the problem, not volume.

Silence has a history of being persecuted as well. In a desperate attempt by a researcher to learn more and produce a wealth all for his own, he kidnaps a young Asonu girl. He brutalizes her and malnourishes her in an attempt to force her into speech. She refuses. Eventually the man gives up and returns her to the Asonu people, and it is decided by committee that the Asonu people will be off limits to further trans-dimensional tourism.

In the case of Rosa Parks, according to Susan Cain’s Quiet Strength it is her introversion, coupled with Martin Luther King Jr.’s extroverted behavior, that makes for a formidable combination. With the case of the Asonu, their entire people are speechless, and as abstained mystics the enlightenment they desire is not to be found in speech, or the words they carry. The only reason we are able to know of them at all is due to the narrator, and Le Guin’s imagination.

It has always been a strange problem in recorded history, that the past only discloses itself into our reality if it is written down, if it is videotaped. I used to despise people who held phone cameras in front of them when something out of the ordinary occurred, but now I understand…if only to some extent. “The faintest ink is better than the best memory.”

This desire to label and record everything has taken an unfortunate life of its own. In the case of education, a person is not what stands before you, but rather their test scores. We seem to have plenty of information on students when they are in school, but little longitudinal research has been done to see what doing well on tests implies for future success. And we know the biggest determinant for test success in our schools in the United States is not how smart they are, but how much money they have.

The Asonu probably realized that language exists independently of those who speak it, and once it was alive, who knows whether its aim was to cause love or pain. Is that not the central issue in our time? Movies and television shows about salacious events (i.e. murder investigations) now carry with them a whole subplot of “public reaction” with journalists following a victim or suspect’s every movements. What use is sending a toxic letter to the parents of a missing child, even if the police are actively investigating them? If a citizen has no knowledge of the current developments of a civic or criminal court case, what business is it of theirs to send anything at all?

Silence deserves a place in our vocabulary as being powerful for what it avoids. People forget that, as our civilization has thankfully drifted from the physically violent tumult of humanity’s past, that it could easily be substituted for the use of harsh language, libel, and slander. I too have been guilty of this: I wrote about the horrific events that took place on Capitol Hill, despite the fact that I was not there. I have little knowledge of the transitions of polarized politics like experts in the field such as Jonathan Haidt. What did I have to gain other than personal vindication that I was able to write a blog post and feel better about myself? I am sure that we all fall prey to the compulsion of speaking without thinking.

Thankfully I have a solution. I am able to go to the words found in books, a medium that contains words, albeit ones that are slightly more thought out, and for more benign a purpose. Many of the authors are long gone, and like the Asonu, have nothing more to say.

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