The Silence. By Keith White

It’s obviously a challenge, if not downright foolhardy, to write about silence.  But in this case, I believe there is no alternative.  Some weeks ago, person who had lived at Mill Grove as a child came back after a gap of over twenty years.  He is now a trained psychotherapist and prison chaplain.  It was while we were together that “the silence” took place. After he took into both hands a document relating to his admission to Mill Grove, within a short time I became aware that something significant was going on.  It was nothing to do with movement or words. He didn’t move…at all.  And I knew that the only attuned response for me was to remain motionless too.  As the minutes passed and the silence deepened, I realised that I would need to stay so perfectly still that there was no way I could even look at my watch.  For this reason, I will never know how long we remained together in that mutual silent stillness.

After a while tears began to well up in his eyes and began a slow journey down his cheeks.  But still he remained silent and without the hint of any other movement.  Then at last he indicated by a gesture with his hands and breathing that he wanted to communicate with me.  I can’t remember the exact words that he spoke because I was still held in thrall to the deep quality of the silence.  But he uttered the word, “So”, and this was followed, slowly and emotionally, by his indication that in this moment there had been a revelation: everything he had believed or taken for granted up until that moment, reinforced by what others had said, had been overturned, or turned inside out.

His stay at Mill Grove as a little boy, which he and others had assumed to be the saddest and bleakest part of his life, was nothing of the sort.  It had been more like the period, possibly the only one, in which he had experienced security and love.  And now, that is, in this very time and place, having come back, he was experiencing this truth afresh.  He said little more because there was nothing more to add.  This was an overwhelming experience, which I was the privileged not only to witness, but also of which I was a part.

When he eventually left, I reflected deeply and often on the nature of the silence in which I had participated, but whose depth I had intuited rather than grasped in any way that could be put into words.  I tried to process things by writing down some of my feelings and shared them with others who I knew would understand something of the profundity of what had been at stake and might have been going on.  But its essence remained a mystery, about whose significance I was in no doubt.

Then he contacted me and asked if he could make a return visit from the North of England where he lived.  He arrived on time and took the very same seat in which he had remained motionless for that period of shared silence.  I then chose to sit in the seat that I had occupied previously.  I had no idea why he had come again or what he wanted to talk about.  So, because there were just fifteen minutes before lunch, I mentioned to him that I had still not got over the experience of being with him on the last occasion.  I knew something unique and psychologically momentous, had been going on in his heart, mind and soul.  But apart from the fact that it had positive connotations, I remained in the dark.

I went on to share with him how I had written and talked about it several times since as a way of trying to fathom what was going on.  And it came as no surprise to learn that he had done the very same thing, both in England and America, when he had been teaching and lecturing.  So it was that we began to explore it together.  One of his key concepts was of life as a “road-map” by which he seemed to mean something close to an assigned “script” (as, for example, with gender or class stereotyping).  On his road map he was destined to be a victim.  And there was no space or room for moving beyond victimhood.  What’s more there was absolutely no possibility of love.  Yes, he really did use this, often neglected, word!

Yet, he went on to tell me how in sessions with a therapist some years ago, he discovered that there was what he called a “hot spot” in childhood, that he would one day need to revisit.  And as I understand it, Mill Grove was this hot-spot, or covered the time and processes in his life associated with it.

At this point words began to fail (again) and I recall his pronounced and repeated hand movements.  He placed them together and pointed them downwards from in front of his face towards his feet, and then moved them upwards again.  I responded by musing with him about the depth of his feelings and how I had wondered whether the tears had come from his feet.  He said that they came from a much deeper source than that:  in “the silence” he had been connected deeply with the earth below his feet.

Now I am conscious that this might sound rather “new-ageish”, but for some reason, it didn’t feel like that at all.  It was earthy and matter of fact.  He pointed around to encompass the whole of the time (the moment) and place (and its context).  Love was being experienced again.  And as far as I could gather this was not restricted to an event or a particular person, but to something that comprised both people and place, his inner and outer worlds.

When he had visited previously, and on discovering that he was a therapist and counsellor, I gave him a copy of The Growth of Love.  And he now spoke of how he was experiencing afresh the sense of primal acceptance and security that he had known, relatively fleetingly, at Mill Grove.  (His mother had taken him away from Mill Grove because she wanted him back with her.)  This helped to make sense of both, that connection to the earth with its likeness to a stable foundation, and his insistence on speaking of love (which is premised, I believe, on primal security of some sort).

It wasn’t long before he started his long journey home, and I have been musing since, as no doubt he has done.  The branches of my thought multiply all the while.  But prominent among them is the reminder that security can be found in some unlikely places and seemingly unpromising periods of life.  He wasn’t the only one to have found it in what is sometimes termed “substitute care”.  For some children this means that “primary care” that has not been experienced elsewhere.  Then, I recalled how he and his younger sister were with us for just two years or so.  Was it possible that something so profoundly significant and lasting could take root in such a short time?  Once again, the testimony of people’s lives over the years have confirmed that it is indeed possible.  One should never underestimate the potential and power of a single, sometimes brief, relationship or experience.

Then what if he had not come back, or if on coming back, he found that the place and its people were no longer there for him?  How much of the meaning of the past had been discovered, perhaps even unlocked, by his recent visits after several decades?  Healing and self-knowledge always intersect in and through time in unpredictable ways.  A road map or script can be transcended years later and the healing works back.  But perhaps the converse: the healing was there, but not realised and appropriated until years later.

And would any of this had been possible without “the silence” and the fact that we had shared it together?  I recall a psychotherapist describing a session during his training in which he and his supervisor had spent 55 minutes (that’s the whole session) in silence. Neither the student, nor his supervisor felt under no compulsion to say anything.  And I recall the late Dame Cicely Saunders saying to me that those who are dying look most of all for someone who will watch and pray with them: not offer them words of advice or comfort.

There is, of course a time and place for words.  But as Job discovered to his cost, the words of “comforters” can have the opposite of their intended effect.  In counselling and therapy, as in music, silence is integral to the whole process.  Whatever “attunement” means, it will sometimes be best expressed and received in and through silence.

“Remember what peace there may be in silence”, go the ancient words.  And we might venture to add, “and remember what healing there may be found in that peace”.


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