To preserve the silence within

And now for something a little different. Story time – get comfortable and take a little ride with me.

I have been working for some time on a talk I will give in a couple of weeks at the TLt conference – a little ditty on things that I think are really important. Little did I realize that a gem was about to fall into my hands for a second time.

I was cleaning out some old stuff from my office the other day, and I ran across a plaque with a passage written on it that I had gotten from my girlfriend as a graduation present from high school, just shy of forty years ago. I saved the plaque, not because of some angst-ridden need to stay attached to Denise after all these years (although she was quite wonderful, and holds a fond place in my memory), but because the saying on the plaque has followed me across schools, jobs, relationships and even countries. I memorized it long ago, and I was pleased that when I ran across the plaque, I could still recite it without missing a beat. This passage, the prologue to the Canterbury Tales in middle English, the Greek alphabet, Tennyson’s Ulysses, and a few church prayers and rituals are the only other things that have such a firm hold on my memory. So why this?

First, a little context. I was 18 when I first saw this passage. It was Indiana in the late 60’s—not the 60’s filled with music, enlightenment and love. It was 1968, filled with racism, fear, a war that threatened to snap me up just like it had so many friends of mine, and heaps of uncertainty about the future. It was the final year of life for Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, both of whom had awakened me to bigger things and had helped me find parts of myself that I didn’t even know existed. Their assassinations made me more cynical than an 18 year old kid graduating from high school should be. It was a truly scary time, a time filled with change at its most urgent and threatening potential. Personally, I was looking ahead to university, not with joyful anticipation, but with a growing sense of dread. I felt small, powerless and confused. I was closing up, folding into myself.

Then Denise gave me the plaque with this passage from a speech by Dag Hammarskjøld:

To preserve the silence within – amid all the noise. To remain open and quiet, a moist humus in the fertile darkness where the rain falls and the grain ripens – no matter how many tramp across the parade ground in whirling dust under an arid sky.

There was something about the grace, humility and gentility of these words; they opened up a place where I could reject my growing cynicism and fear and nurture some core values. They spoke of a way to be strong when so many forces in my life kept shouting at me about how weak I was. These simple words and vivid images reminded me to be open to new ideas, not just popular ideas.

What a gift!

And, what I didn’t know in 1968—couldn’t know at that time of life—was that turbulence and fear have always been, and would always be a part of living, and that it would continue to be particularly difficult for people just starting out in life. Now, in 2008, I sense that the same powerful forces are at work that I felt when I was 18. We have wars, political and economic uncertainty, and climate change threatening our very future on the planet.

Each of us deals with these threats in our own way, but I thought it would be a good time to revisit those words of Dag Hammerskjøld, and pass them along to you.

From Dag to Denise to me to you. Peace.

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4 thoughts on “To preserve the silence within

  1. Wow, great story Rick, and what a wonderful and timely passage. And, I think this is perfect timing for me. Not only am I feeling a growing cynicism on world political, environmental and cultural events, I feel it in my educational pursuits as well. These are powerful words that help to empower, and I am thankful that you shared this story with us today.

  2. Thanks, Alec. This was one from the heart. Once a hippie, always a hippie. I knew too many friends who fell in Vietnam, and saw even more fall to disollusionment and a failure of hope. The same thing is happening now, and education is a canary in the mine. You’re on the front lines of finding new ways to think about how people find meaning and value each other. What could be more full of hope, or more heartbreaking?

    A quote from Bobby: “If not now, when? If not us, who?”

  3. Yes Rick, thank you. That is a powerful message for these sobering times. I do believe that each of us can make a positive impact in this world by impacting those in our particular spheres of influence. I applaud both you and Alec (and many others) for the work you are doing in education, difficult as that may be at times.

    Someone once said that when concerned about the future and uncertain about life, plant a tree as a symbol of hope for and expectation of good things to come. So I did – really! And I’m about to plant about 5,000 more in the next few days.

  4. I am here at Tlt and I loved your presentation, as well as this passage..
    Life just seems to slow down as I reread the passage.
    Thanks for the inspiration and a fantastic presentation.

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