The Silence of Friendship

The silence of old friendship; a common trope in literature, perhaps a trite cliché. But do we ever practice it?

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A friend and I were cruising along a country road in wintry Michigan. The gray light of late afternoon muted the colors all around us. Outside the windows of my SUV, snowy pines and red barns flashed past. We were headed, I think, to another friend’s house for dinner. Except for the soft sound of the tires on wet asphalt, the silence of the auditory landscape matched the subdued gray outside.

Our silence fit the time and place. The fact that there was nothing uncomfortable about it struck me since I had only made my friend’s acquaintance a couple of months before. I would call it the silence of a budding friendship rather than of a long one. 

The silence of old friendship; a common trope in literature, perhaps a trite cliché. But do we ever practice it? Do we recognize it as a paradoxically fruitful element in the complex of communications we practice each day with our fellow social animals? If it can be fruitful, ought we to cultivate it? Yes, it can; and we should. 

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“Silence speaks of a strength which can only be guessed at, a reserve which may be drawn upon at any moment,” says English Benedictine author Hubert van Zeller in his recently republished We Live With Our Eyes Open. Silence, then, is first a form of self-restraint. But it ought to be a restraint of strength not of frivolity. It is more noble and worthwhile to restrain good thoughts in order to refine their expression and say them at the best time than to restrain idle chatter. Here we come upon the adage “less is more” and the truth (which can often be only learned the hard way) that delaying a reprimand, piece of advice, or expression of affection is often the only way to make it effective. Van Zeller comments: 

The force which is suggested but not revealed is often a more compelling influence than the force which appears. It is an impressive sight to watch a man whom you know to have a powerful temper restraining himself. It is more exciting to see him letting himself go, but you are more impressed if he doesn’t.

But silence should not be just another rhetorical ploy in the sophist’s toolbox. It’s not just a way of showing off strength of character: it is also a way of building that character. Like working out physically, keeping silence builds not just the virtue of temperance and restraint but qualities of perception, trust, and faith. Van Zeller draws the connection with other sorts of stamina: 

There must always be a margin of unrevealed potentiality, whether it is of talent or of virtue or of physical endurance. Otherwise the stock is seen to be exhausted. Where there is no further room for expectation there is also no room for confidence, or what we prefer to regard as faith….If there is nothing more to come, it means there has been no restraint. 

When we are getting to know someone, silence allows the other person a space to express themselves; it allows us to reflect on what we want to share with the other; what response to make to that which has been shared with us; to imply a desire to continue association with the other because we have not exhausted all we have to say.

As an expression of love, the self-restraint silence can communicate often rings truer than an avowal of affection “right off the bat.” Holding silence on the topic of love shows the beloved your willingness to do without the sensory satisfaction of expressing it in order to keep it from grasping selfishly. It shows that you value the beloved’s freedom, that you value costly actions above cheap words and trust her to perceive and prize such restraint.

When it comes to correction, a period of silence in the face of a friend’s immaturity, confusion, or even sin can be the only way to communicate to them the fact that you love them despite disapproving of something they do or think. “There may be times when correction is more telling if directed with vehemence, and there may be people whom only the more forceful measures will convince,” writes Dom Hubert. 

Our Lord, after all, cast out the money changers with violence from the Temple. But this was a single occasion, and the money changers were singularly hard cases. Even with the Pharisees who, if anyone ever did, deserved what they got, our Lord’s dealings were measured. It was the challenge of His restraint which converted souls, not the sting of His reproof. With the woman taken in adultery, with the Samaritan woman, with Judas himself, our Lord showed the force of under- rather than over-emphasis on guilt. Some rose to meet the challenge, others didn’t. It was a challenge, moreover, that he wanted to see thrown out by those who followed Him. 

Patience before a correction proves we are not criticizing just to “be right”; companionship initially silent of faults proves we love the person before they change their mind; quiet disapproval draws the friend out of defensiveness, inviting them to ask how we can think them wrong but remain silent.

Silence is a challenge to our associates to be genuine: to stop masquerading, to profess their true feelings and thoughts, to accept our own comments and actions as the same. “Silence is much more of a challenge because you are mystified by it, you feel uncomfortable, it searches you much more closely than noise.”

Silence can also become a supreme courtesy and mark of receptive respect. Of this, poet Paul Goodman wrote in “Nine Kinds of Silence” that it was, “the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts; the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, ‘This… this…’” Silence can also become a supreme courtesy and mark of receptive respect. Tweet This

While there can be sad and melancholy silences, silences of anger or resentment, silences that poison by deliberately omitting words of love or understanding, we know that silence can also be a good, and it can prevent or communicate the opposite of all these evils. Silence is something we should not undervalue in our social lives and friendships. 

Of course, it is usually the time and place for speech more often than silence; and arbitrarily or hypocritically practicing a silence that tries to shout out self-righteous recollection or restraint will do no one, least of all ourselves, any good. Conversation is often a necessity of charity when we need to put people at ease, distract someone from their cares, or provide relaxation and entertainment to family and guests. 

Silence is not much of an end in itself; it is the means to greater communion. It is the stage and preparation for speech. The phrase “a pregnant silence” was coined for a reason: the birth of new life through speech is the fruit and proper outcome of silence. In our noise-saturated society, we must remember that there are times and places for silence. There may be few chances, but let us be ready for them when they come to us. No need to rush; when they do come, let the snow fall outside, and let the conversation grow as delicately and fine as the ice crystals falling in a winter dusk.


  • Julian Kwasniewski

    Julian Kwasniewski is a musician specializing in renaissance Lute and vocal music, an artist and graphic designer, as well as marketing consultant for several Catholic companies. His writings have appeared in National Catholic Register, Latin Mass Magazine, OnePeterFive, and New Liturgical Movement. You can find some of his artwork on Etsy.

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