No words: Can Silence Be a Part of Healing?


Maybe in these most profound moments after a diagnosis of breast cancer, we are called to be still.

I only got one detention in school. It was in the seventh grade, and I had already been warned, mind you, for the last time, that further note-passing between my friend and me would result in a detention. But I had something important to say, something that could not wait, and I could not resist the urge to share. So I did it: I wrote it down and surreptitiously passed it over. Immediately busted, pink detention slip in front of me, my extraordinarily limited capacity for rebellion laid bare, I responded by sobbing quietly at my desk. Effective coping has never been my strong suit.

I would guess that most of us who choose to spend our work time talking with and caring for patients, and our free time reading and writing blogs are, by and large, verbal types for whom it is easier to speak or write than not. We read and write for fun, we talk things out with others, we talk to ourselves when no one else is available. We rely on conversation to process, problem solve, and make connections in our personal lives and in our work. Our society’s recent romance with social media now has daily happenings once discussed at the dinner table broadcast all day long as status updates and tweets. Our most personal thoughts, having spent our adolescence protected in locked diaries with well-hidden if suspiciously flimsy keys, now spend our middle age publicly immortalized in blog posts. It is an increasingly difficult thing to be silent.

And yet, even to the most verbal of us, the pace and scope of this dialogue can be exhausting. In her book

Finding Your Way in a Wild New World

, Martha Beck suggests that the best way to connect with our highest consciousness and with others involves first falling into a state of Wordlessness, another name for the kind of meditative quiet honored in all spiritual traditions. (Now might be a good place to point out that I have been reading this book on the treadmill because otherwise I get bored, and I had decided that it would be a great use of time if I could get in shape and catch up on my reading and become a Zen woman all at the same time. Perhaps you are starting to see the problem.) Through this practice of Wordlessness, says Martha, we can achieve Oneness with others, connecting with them on a kind of energy internet. Fascinated by the prospect of making connections to others without words instead of through them, I decided to try one of the exercises designed to help me fall into Wordlessness, but I nearly fell off the treadmill, so I decided I would just try it later. Besides, my friend had shown up and I had a bunch of things to tell her.

But Wordlessness came knocking while walking my dog on an impossibly spring-like February day, and I began to notice the quiet. We were walking on the trails along the Gunpowder River, and I began to imagine the folks who had walked beside this river, named for the saltpeter that observant colonists had noticed in its banks hundreds of years ago. I thought of how the silence of their journeys must have backlit the sights, sounds, and smells of the landscape now often lost to the constant cacophony in our brains. A few days later, when cold weather had returned, my husband and I sat quietly at the kitchen table after dinner by the glowing embers in the stone fireplace, their light and warmth soothing body and soul at the close of a long day. Is it any wonder that after working late, checking email accounts and Twitter one last time, and watching the distressing news at 11 (or the 300 other channels we have), we lie awake in bed and wonder why we cannot sleep?

And finally, it is Wordlessness that I realized is at hand, as I have been reflecting on the many—too many–times in recent weeks when I have sat with a patient with breast cancer whose late stage and early age leave us all reeling from the cruelest realities of this disease. In the delivery of the most difficult of news, my own breast cancer experience is inadequate. We both know that she is facing what I and she and all survivors have feared most. We both know that this day will mark the “before” and the “after”. We both know that life will never be quite the same. I search for the right words to say, but my capacity for language and for healing, is immeasurably less than her anguish.

What I do know is that she will move on from this day. She is changed, and it will not be easy, but, like so many amazing Fearless Friends before her, she will laugh and love and live. She will find hope in new places and be surprised by joy in moments. But I must honor where she is today, and to fill the painful silence is to minimize what she is going through. It is hard not to speak but I am not in seventh grade any more. We sit in silence for as long as she needs; I do my best to bear witness. I wonder often if someone else would do a better job.

So I am comforted to read the words of the mystic Thomas Merton: “Only silence can reach that dimension of reality that is too deep for words.” Maybe there are no words. Maybe in these most profound moments, we are called to be still, to drop into Wordlessness. Maybe it is through silence alone that we can make a connection, share our experience, experience Oneness. If so, I can do that. I breathe and, with all my heart, to and from all of us, I send her peace.

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