I received an American education since kindergarten, up until I came to Ewha for university. The education emphasized class participation as one of the most important aspects of learning. I was always encouraged to speak up, or at least to ask questions to contribute to the learning atmosphere and to learn to express my own opinions. But I remember myself almost always relatively quiet in class. My mother recalls the manifestation of my quietness since pre-Kindergarten. She said I used to make her frustrated by staring blankly at her and not saying a word. My quietness also manifested in elementary school – I preferred to listen to my teachers’ and classmates’ opinions than to dominate discussions.
But at the same time, I was greatly offended when my teacher said I was “shy.” I admit that I was pretty quiet, but I was never shy. I just did not bother to speak up; I did not feel the need to do so. And I was certainly not influenced by the Asian culture; I was not even aware of such culture. My quietness was not a matter of high-context culture or low-context culture. It was about me, my quiet nature. My parents did not follow the typical “Asian” parenting style – they did not “silence” me, but rather, the exact opposite. They always tried to make me talk – they would never stop asking questions, especially at the dinner table. Despite their effort, I chose to remain silent, unless I had something that I really wanted to share with the class or was deeply interested in a certain topic. I only spoke in front of a group for a long time when I was required to, such as during Socratic seminars or delivering a speech.
I do not see anything wrong with remaining silent. It is true that we can share inspiring ideas through discussions, but there are also other ways, such as through writing. What I really want to elaborate on, though, is why we need to spend time in silence. There is nothing better than silence that encourages us to contemplate and observe in learning that allows us to acknowledge and understand meanings and hidden meanings, and further, to connect and relate the meanings to our own lives.
“Silent Poem” by Robert Francis, for example, is a poem that uses simplicity in structure to encourage readers to connect with the images of the natural world by providing time to contemplate and observe nature, which allows readers to acknowledge their interdependence and connectedness with it. The poem is only composed of 40 concrete words with the absence of a narrative structure. These words are built into six stanzas in a consistent manner with four words in each line and a large amount of white space between words. Such words are articulated as separate units with the spaces that disrupt the flow of the syntax. The spaces act as a mode of pauses to connect the points, giving the audience time to think of their relationships with the images of a peaceful and rural scene. Through its consistency and simplicity of the structure, the poem overall adopts an elusive tone that engages readers to attempt to seek and interpret words that seem to be randomly scattered.
Throughout, the poem stimulates contemplative practice as we contemplate its images. Nicholas Sparks, an American novelist, had once said, “We sit silently and watch the world around us. This has taken a lifetime to learn…Silence is pure. Silence is holy.” This is the kind of process the poem makes us take, but in a broader sense, it is what silence makes us take. Silence makes us sit, look, observe, think and compare. As we do this, the meaning expands from the texts, figures or symbols to meanings, and to cover almost every aspect of our lives since these things we are supposed to compare include everything small from a firefly to broad images of life and death.