Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ethics Issuing from Silence III

The ethics of silence is green.

The work of silence tunes us to the natural world in a new way. In Alaska, mere survival requires you to be "empty before the world". It requires living from your core silence. The subtle senses come alive: your skin warns of changes in humidity and barometric pressure; your sense of smell becomes acute to fox, martin, salt, rain, fog, kelp, whale and ten thousand other scents. And your sixth sense wakes up: you may not see, smell or hear the bear on the other side of the berry bushes, but when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up—and they really do prickle—you'd better vamoose if you value your life.

But there is more: the work of silence gives us respect for other forms of life. Its importance ranges far beyond a scientific acknowledgment of need for biodiversity, or the discovery that our perception of other creatures as feathered, furred or finned automatons is the product of our arrogance. The work of silence enables us to engage with the world around us in ways far beyond the present ability of science to measure. This engagement is not a one-way street of observation; it is a true engagement, receiving what the natural world wishes to tell us as well as allowing the natural world to discover who we are.

It used to be the case that the character of young Inuit people came under acute examination when they were taken out onto the sea ice for the first time. Misinterpreting the subtle senses, speaking too quickly (showing off or attracting attention)—any distraction endangers the life of the group. The young must learn composure, another important word for Native peoples, along with "respect". On the other hand, not pointing out a sound an elder may be too deaf to hear is equally imperiling; the young must learn to take risks. On the ice, a mistake is the same as a lie, and a lie is the same as murder. Respect is life: respect for the signals the environment is sending; respect for silence; respect for the wisdom of the elders; respect for one's own acuity.

In popular urban culture the word "respect" is too often linked to an excuse for ghetto violence. On the other hand, its absence from ordinary life makes everyday speech ring hollow. I have been told that among Native people the word is related to acknowledging the other's weight of person: their character; their silence, space and judgment and the freedom to use these aspects creatively, or to abuse them. People go to great lengths to preserve this respect; for example, correction is indirect: an elder will quietly say, "Someone is..." and name the fault. Ideally, everyone present will examine him or her self to see if the fault is theirs.

When I heard about this notion it reminded me of the nuance of density that attaches to the Hebrew word for glory, kavod. It is as if there is a hidden glory radiating from each person which will reveal itself only to those who have been able to focus outward and wait in generosity, allowing their own hidden glory—hidden especially from themselves—to pour forth. Each person can realize this glory by relinquishing closely-held shibboleths to listen receptively to the silence, through the silence to the other. Even as the observing I/eye is elided, the glory pours through.

The ethics that issue from the work of silence are counter-cultural. The notion of relating to people with respect by creating a welcoming space where the often surprising truth of the other may unfold is often regarded with contempt by those who take their ethics from a Machiavellian perspective. For them, relating to others without trying to manipulate them is seen as weakness.

It is for this reason that leaders like Rowan William are often under attack from all sides. The ethics that issue from silence are kenotic, that is, they arise from a wellspring of silence that has manifested itself by pouring through those who have made themselves available to it. One reason history has a tendency to repeat itself is that there are so few leaders who understand the discernment of the need to wait to see what unfolds, to be inclusive, to not act. A leader who seeks his or her own self-interest and acts accordingly will inevitably be caught in the feedback loops that eventually generate division, violence, and abuse, while a kenotic leader can often be a catalyst for something entirely new to break in.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love "The notion of relating to people with respect by creating a welcoming space where the often surprising truth of the other may unfold". I try to show respect by giving freedom but your words say it so much better. May I relate this to "the space of prayer", creating a welcoming space where the often suprising truth of God may unfold for the person prayed for?

8:57 am, August 30, 2008  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Yes, they are one and the same.

4:04 pm, August 30, 2008  

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