I read a fascinating article, today, on drowning. I highly recommend it both for the fascination of it, and for the fact that, if you are ever near the water, it is decidedly useful information to know (which, in a story about bad things that can happen to your kids, is a rarity, being far more often drowned out by 'you should be frightened' and 'we are heroic for telling you so'. Sorry, don't mean to snark my bias).
But what was interesting to me was the concept (which I had learned before, but never so vividly) - that drowning, a kind of death that (at least for many people) is inescapably connected with panic, is, more or less, silent. The silence is, in fact, one of the best signs that something is wrong. Which of course, made me consider, the deeper implications of that, the metaphorical parallels. People who are going to commit suicide withdraw sometimes, people who are being abused can become uncommunicative, people who have been traumatised can do the same (this is not a professional statement, I know that people react in very different ways, and may do just the opposite, so forgive me the generalization). But silence, generally, is a sign that something is wrong.
That's interesting to me, because what we, as humans, do (or at least *I* as a human do) is to begin to be afraid of that silence. In a joking way you hear this from parents all the time - 'Those kids are too quiet, they must be up to something.' But in a more serious way, someone who is silent makes other people uncomfortable, makes them want to fix things, to make them not silent. This is good, on the one hand, of course, because it's an instinct that, when our children suddenly stop talking, makes us probe to see what's wrong, to try to offer help. On the other hand, we sometimes confuse things, and become afraid of the silence, in and of itself, instead of the lurking horror of the silence.
The drowning article illustrates this, to me, perfectly: the silence is a sign of distress, but it is also a natural reaction, and one that developed because it is the best way for an individual to try not to drown - they stick the arms out and push themselves up, instead of flailing wildly, they take deep gulping breaths instead of wasting their oxygen screaming, etc. The silence is a coping mechanism, a response where the body takes over because it knows the brain has gone (quite literally in this case) beyond it's depth.
Silence, in a psychological situation, then seems to serve the same purpose, for me. If I am miserable, I grow more and more silent. I've seen this same silence in others, and I know it can be unnerving, threatening even. It makes you uncomfortable. It leaves you in a difficult place. But the problem, for those of us who are the 'lifeguards' (because we all need to be each others lifeguards), is to know how draw the person into shore, without panicking them, or having them pull us down with them - by the time silence comes, reason has been compromised, after all. It has to be, because the silence is a deeper, more bodily response than the very human, reasonable search for daily validation and help that accompanies frustration and problems, normally. Silence comes, instead, when we approach a profundity so deep that we know that to move, to twitch, even to speak is to risk teetering into it. There is a slow work of moving the self, quietly, quietly, back toward a firmer ground, to seek a better crossing than the one that's almost swallowed us. And sometimes, that moving is beyond us, sometimes we are truly drowning, we are, in fact, beyond our depth and struggling to bob up just long enough for a lifeguard to snatch us from the water.
But, in that case, there is two things to remember. First of all, the silence itself is not the true source of our horror. The silence is the sign of a human response, of a living self trying to cling on until reason can be refound. Treating the silence, itself, gets the sort of strained, vague responses that probably everyone has gotten from someone when they know something is wrong: "Oh no, I'm fine, just tired," "Don't worry about it, just a headache," "I'm sure it'll pass." This isn't evasiveness on the part of the drowning person, it's the confused, teetering effort to do nothing too drastic or severe, for fear of losing balance. After all, they don't know if you are looking to find the source of the silence, or looking to just end the silence.
The second thing to remember is that the profundity is real, even if invisible, and terribly, terribly deep, and that with two people, one of them drowning, there is only one person who has the chance of a full access to their faculties. Just as a drowning victim can pull a lifeguard down with them in their panic, and kill them both, a silence disturbed can hurt both parties. On the one hand, this is why it's good to pull in professional lifeguards sometimes (psychologists, psychiatrists, a suicide help line, a teacher at school, a social worker, etc). On the other, it is also a little reminder of the awesome, humbling power that some of us DO have, to draw people up from the depths. The ability to draw someone in from that brink, or at least to give them a life ring long enough to find a lifeguard is an awesome one, one that we forget.
Finally, and perhaps a bit more troublingly, the thing this story made me realize was the great, and terrible beauty of nature itself - not just the sea, though the crushing, silent force of the sea is certainly great and terrilby, but of us, of our human frames, so great, silent, and terrible, able to save us in ways we cannot expect, and destroy us with the same innate force. When Emily Dickinson said her life was like a loaded gun, this is what it means to me - we are each of us a coiled spring of great, terrible force, force that can save and destroy, ourselves or others. A force like that should be nurtured, trained, applauded, kept sacred - and treated with a healthy dose of sober respect.
As a final note, please do not think I mean this as a subtle commentary on anyone who has dropped me a line or said hello over the last little while when I haven't been very talky. Rest assured, I'm not feeling totally silent, just kind of agoraphobic, and the big, big room of the internet is just a bit intimidating right now. Thank you very much for everyone who DID drop me a line. If I were Emily Dickinson, I would have sent you each a cake or a flower, and a poem. I can't bake very well, and I have a black thumb, and my poems are grouchy and far between, so I virtual hug will have to do.