The idea of silence, or keeping quiet, is definitely a recurring theme in the field of psychology. But you can’t forget that the artistic and literary world have always given it a ton of value. Claude Debussy said that silence is nothing more than what’s between one note and another. And in that way, it’s what gives so much force and beauty to every piece of music.
Jorge Luis Borges also talked about how the beauty and depth of silence are eye-opening in one of his poems. He said it’s what helps you remember who you are and what you love. But out of all these poetic and musical works, the message Neruda gave us with his ode in “Keeping Quiet” stands out above all the rest for a few specific reasons. It’s an invitation to stop moving, to pause the grinding of your internal gears and rethink the empty, artificial meaning of things. He wanted you to remember what’s most important…
Keeping quiet can be a good teacher
In general, we hate silence in just the same way that nature hates empty space and will immediately fill it up with shrubs. Silence feeds our imagination, but it also makes us fall into deep holes of anxiety, or into the whirlwind of worry. We’re just not used to it, and neither are our cities: they’re constantly full of the mechanical murmuring of cars, businesses that never close, and industries that never sleep…
We’ve forgotten that silence and keeping quiet have power. They have a lot to teach. They can even act like a spell and foster certain parts of you that you thought were lost. In his poem, Neruda brings out the idea of reflecting as a group, no matter what language we speak. He says that, just like we do with kids sometimes, we should count to twelve and keep quiet.
It’s time to pause and stop everything, he says. Now is the time to be still, just for one second, and drop our arms and sink into a realm that we find uncomfortable most of the time: silence. Maybe by letting that stillness calm you down, or the space between two notes that Debussy talked about take over you, you’ll become aware of what you’re doing with your life. And with the world.
The poem “Keeping Quiet”
“Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.”
Nature as a synonym for kindness
Silence is a therapeutic tool that people often forget about. But we could all stand to use it a lot more. Silences are times for your thoughts to settle in, and for you to understand people better. Silence can also help you learn to be more compassionate and intimate with the people around you. That’s because silence helps you listen and helps you look at things more carefully and attentively.
And what Neruda does with this poem is make silence and keeping quiet seem more natural. He brings out our connection with the earth as something that gets us closer to our true selves. It’s because there are no trains or any rush in that place, and nobody wages war. Natural things are fundamental to us too, they’re the roots we have to reconnect with occasionally to reset our priorities or adjust our worldview and focus on what really matters.
What silence is in this beautiful poem is a life-breathing wind that will encourage you to live differently. It’s also there to help you understand yourself better, and be more respectful and transparent. There aren’t many cultural products that are this powerful with so little space. So you should think back on the ones that do more often and shape a reality that’s more beautiful, dignified, and positive for all.
So try it out. Count to twelve and keep quiet… and then let the silence embrace you.