We are living in some difficult days. Recently, the United States recorded 200,000 deaths from Covid-19. The world is close to passing one million deaths from this deadly virus. Black people suffer the continual onslaught of police violence. LGBTIQ refugees continue to suffer in the massive Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Migrants and refugees are taking to roads and boats all over the world. The climate is heating up. The American election has become an international humiliation because of the sickening behavior of our president. These are difficult days. I find myself wanting to speak up. I also find myself wanting to take some refuge in silence.
As happens often, when I feel pulled in two radically different directions, it’s usually wise to consider them both. Using my voice and sitting in silence are both essential these days. Sometimes both are essential within the same day.
I find it hard to keep quiet when faced with the horrors of American life today. We didn’t have to be in the position of losing so many of our neighbors to Covid-19. A competent government could have done a far better job than the failed government we have today. I find it hard to know what to do when I see the violence unleashed on LGBTIQ refugees in a massive refugee camp where they should be safe. I find it hard to even know what to say when people show indifference or anger at refugees who are fleeing violence and poverty.
A wonderful community of people read this blog and so I feel compelled to speak up here and to let others use the space for the same purpose. As you have seen, recently, I’ve given this blog space to my friend, Jimmy Friday, who writes beautifully about being a Black father in America. My space can be my voice too. I know it’s essential for poets and all artists to use their art for justice and kindness. To sit with a silent pen during these times would be immoral.
But there is a kind of silence that I find necessary too. The world comes at us awfully fast these days. I can read news reports about sorrows all over the world within ten minutes of sitting at my computer. The density and sadness of our information age can require us, not only to use our voices, but also to slow down and sit in silence. To consider. To think. To look quietly at images. To let people and facts settle into us. That way our voices are real. Our voices carry the tone of compassion and not just reaction. While there is nothing wrong with reacting strongly to injustice, it is even more useful, and less self-destructive, to take in the news with silence and time. Then when we do use our voices, they are true, reasoned, and helpful.
Sometimes the silence is necessary as a refuge from the maelstrom of sorrow we see and read about. It’s important not to become overwhelmed. It’s important to keep hold of one’s health. Sometimes the essential task, for a time, is to just keep silent. That kind of silence is necessary but only for a time. If we stay in silence and don’t speak up about the injustices we see around us, we become part of the indifferent, self-protective crowd. That helps no one.
For me, it’s important to admit in writing, like saying it aloud to myself, that these are difficult days. They will stay difficult for the foreseeable future. But by using our voices and our arts, deepened by periods of silence and contemplation, maybe we can be of use. Maybe our various arts, whether poetry and teaching, or painting and policy-making, can be tools for justice and peace in the world that so desperately needs both.