I'VE been making a little study of silences; on the quiet, you might say. By analyzing each one at close range, I've come to appreciate the many varieties there are, and what they tell us. The significance of a silence can only be determined, I've found, by noting what directly precedes it. Of course, any silence should command a fair degree of respect, and anyone coming unexpectedly upon a group silence of any magnitude naturally enters on tiptoe. And perhaps with an air of concern. (What were they saying just before it became so quiet? Was it about me?)
The Shamed Silence, immediately preceded by some great gaffe, can be as deep and yawning as that pit the poor perpetrator wishes would swallow him at that moment. This is the silence that comes too late, that never fails to follow those instantly regrettable words spoken amiss.
Also of a negative nature is the hush prompted by some pronouncement so outrageous we momentarily are struck dumb, truly at a loss for words. But this is certainly not the vacuous silence it may seem. Behind the scenes, wheels are turning and gears shifting, denoting a resounding retort being readied, evi-denced by faint underground mutter-ings and sputterings. On the other hand, this might be just the appropriate time for disdaining to respond entirely, choosing rather to abide by G. K. Chesterton's apt reminder, ``Silence is the unbearable repartee.''
Then there is the self-protective silence, hinting as it does of wisdom, when words would have revealed only ignorance.
Silences shared with good friends or loved ones can be rich with meaning and understanding, needing no audible expression.
Some silences, though sustained, actually may have little significance, merely masking vacuity. Though offhand one might assume great thoughts are being thought, this is not true here. It is simply a case of there being nothing to say, so no one is saying it.
Other than the Pregnant Pause, usually indicating something of great import about to be confided, the normal short pause can hardly be termed a true silence, but merely a brief thought-gathering moment between utterances.
There is the Deep-Night Silence, not to be confused with the ordinary nocturnal silence usually prevailing. This intense hush directly follows some strange, unexplainable sound nearby, only half-heard in our lethargic state, but which has alerted us instantly and which we're now straining to hear repeated so that we might identify it and go back to sleep with an easy mind. There is nothing quite so portentous as this harrowing night silence, heavy with hints of unaccountable furtive movements close at hand.
A happier silence is that immediately following the receipt of unexpected good news, when one is literally speechless for the moment, while busily mulling over the prospect of great things to come. Perhaps this should not be categorized as a bona fide silence, accompanied as it well may be by soft sighs of delight or gurgles of joy.
Best of all is the silence that proves to be truly golden by withholding the barbed retort, muting the critical word; the silence that is a blessing and seeks to heal rather than hurt. ``I regret often that I have spoken; never that I have been silent.'' (Syrus).