Normally when I speak to a group, I start with a silence. A long silence. Ten seconds. Fifteen seconds. Twenty seconds. I look around the audience, see who is there, see which people I speak to. And, as the silence lasts longer, see how they react to it. The longer it’s quiet, the more uncomfortable they start to feel. Then they start looking around, looking at others. Smiling uncomfortably at each other, wondering when that man in front of the group will finally start talking. This is much more difficult as a writer. I don’t see an audience to speak to, I can only see myself. And yet I like to use the silence, the long silence, or the too long silence, as an opening. Those who feel comfortable during a silence have the power over those who are not comfortable enough with it. Until it’s time to break the silence.
The silence I just started with can be seen as a metaphor for the past year, for the year 2020. I was able to break this silence, but 2020 has been a year in which many people only expressed a permanent silence; they were no longer able to break their silence, and never will again. They leave behind a permanent silence, a silence only we can break; by talking about them, by remembering them, and by thinking about them. We can fill their silence with our own texts about them. And this was also my pain point when I had to think about what I wanted to discuss in my end-of-year speech.
There is a lot to say about 2020, but at the same time so much has already been said about the past year. And everything that has been said about the past year has already been done by many in a beautiful and impressive way, a level that I will not be able to reach. What would my own story add to all that has been said? After all, I have no desire to repeat everything that has already been said; no, if I write something, it has to add something, then it must have a meaning, and then they must not be words that have lost their meaning because of their frequent repetition.
I experienced that earlier this year, when I started writing about something that everyone had already written about. I wondered what I could actually add to all the texts that had already been shared with the world. At the time, I chose to stay close to myself, to share something with the world from my own point of view, my own position. Also this time I decided to do that, hoping to find a niche and be able to write a text that contains some kind of value. Whether that succeeded is not up to me.
In my opinion, what 2020 has shown the most is how much influence we as humans have on each other. How much influence the behaviour of others has on us, and how much influence our behaviour has on others. It reminded me of a quote from the song Dancing For Rain by the American punk band Rise Against: “These worlds collide but the distance remains”. 2020 has polarized us, perhaps more than ever, while we as humans flourish when we can build something together, when we work together. After all, together we can do more than alone. I think this is an interesting quote, because a collision only occurs when something is close together, but in this case a collision takes place because of the great distance between people.
A few weeks ago I read Dipesh Chakrabarty’s text The Climate of History for my study. He writes there that people think only in a limited way in terms of “species”. When we look at animals, we see different animal species that we all place in the same category. But when we look at ourselves as human beings, we rarely think “I am part of humanity”. We don’t see ourselves as part of a “species” every day. This body of thought doesn’t come to mind on a daily basis, it doesn’t come to mind when we make certain choices.
Make choices. In my view, a quote from Alan Watts provides an interesting perspective on this. A quote that the American rock band Nothing More used in their song Gyre, which is also the song that introduced me to Alan Watts; a British speaker and writer who has popularized Eastern philosophies and religions in the Western world. In the song Gyre a recording of a speech by him is used, in which he says: “You are something the whole universe is doing, in the same way that a wave is something the whole ocean is doing.” For me this means that we are part of a larger whole, that we have influence on each other, but also that we go along with a greater development in the universe.
Let’s take a closer look at this metaphor: suppose we all are like a wave in an ocean, suppose we all move along in a greater development in the universe and actually have little influence on ourselves and our choices, what is our life then? What do we represent as individuals when we are like a wave in an ocean? We are unrecognizable among other waves, doing exactly the same as other waves. And perhaps more importantly; would anyone miss me as a wave if there are so many other waves? What do I add to this world?
It’s a question many of us may have asked ourselves. Mentally, 2020 has not been an easy year, a year in which we were mainly physically separated from each other. And a year in which there was a lot of uncertainty about what the future will bring, a year that brought much grief to those who have lost loved ones. A year in which many people were quantified, in which many people became a number. What do our lives mean then?
If you ask yourself that question, and I can be honest that I often question the meaning of my own life, then think about the silence again. The silence with which I started, that silence is universal. Everyone can leave a moment of silence, everyone can leave behind a permanent silence. But despite the fact that the idea of silence is universal and accessible to everyone, it doesn’t mean that every silence is the same. Someone’s silence is unique, it’s connected to that person. Just as friendship and love are universal, but you express friendship and love in your own way. Others can also express friendship and love, can replace you, but they can never do it exactly the way you do it. You are a wave in the ocean, bound to all other waves, yet unique.
I hope you will remember these two things in 2021. That you have universal qualities, but that you express them in your own unique way. And that everything you do affects others; hopefully with a positive influence. For 2021, I wish you a beautiful silence, a restful silence, but above all a temporary silence. A silence that you can break at any time with your own unique voice. As only you can.
- Chakrabarty, Dipesh. „The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry (The University of Chicago Press) 35, nr. 2 (Winter 2009): 197-222
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