By the Rev. Paul Haidostian
Just as there are years of plenty, and years of famine, there are also times of speech, and times of silence.
We are now in the testing time of silence!
Whether one is a regular citizen, a religious leader, a political analyst or an elected official, one has to come to terms with the fact that in the current Middle Eastern quicksand turned chaos, much of what is spoken is swiftly deemed immaterial, if not plain wrong. There may be lessons in humility and self-restraint in all of this, but there is also danger. The “who”, “how”, “what”, “why” and “when” of speech and silence make all the difference. Especially with minorities, abrupt modes and codes of speech and silence clash and demoralize, while confident, truthful and visionary ones edify the souls of individuals and societies. If, in the middle of all that there is out there and in there, the soul is slayed, then no foundations remain to start building again. So, in these years of caution and heavy silence, the challenge is to keep the dignity, the faith and the soul alive. On the one hand, we do not wish to loudly speak about our worst fears and thus sound like we are rehearsing for a doomsday. On the other hand, we do not want to be so unwise as to go on silently as if all will be well no matter what we do and say.
The current situation is clearly much worse than most people had wanted to predict a few years ago. Local politics, narrow allegiances, speedy conclusions, and wishful perspectives had divided people of opinion between unrealistic optimists and unappealing pessimists, especially regarding the future of the Middle East, human rights and democracy, the radicalization of Islam, and the ensuing Christian resignation. Much of that sounds petty now.
Alas, a time of silence:
– You go silent when you are overwhelmed and confused. Truly, there are too many painful crises in too many neighboring lands for too long with no end in sight. Many people I have been speaking with in the past two years are finding it impossible to handle all the heartbreaking developments of their days. Individuals, families, neighborhoods, and communities are feeling that the foundations on which their lives stood are indeed collapsing. The examples of families fleeing bombardment or danger to three or four consecutive houses or cities are now common to hear. Having lost a job, a home, a shop, all personal belongings, but then losing a family member does not sound unusual any more, at least in Syria and Iraq. When the foundations are not in place and the next move is totally unclear, then silence may overcome all the senses. People are normally advised to have a Plan B in case of failure or risk. Now, a Plan C, or D, or others exhausting the whole alphabet are consuming people’s unsettled minds, often leading to abrupt decisions.
– You go silent when you are shocked and numbed. For those who have closely witnessed loud explosions, car crashes, or major earthquakes, the feeling of numbness is well known. Many people are now silent in our region because the earth is still trembling and most have not returned to full consciousness. This includes leaders at all levels whose strong sense of calling and responsibility, traditional tasks of management, and experience of the immeasurable loss have been making it utterly difficult to speak words of wisdom and common sense.
– You go silent when you are terrified. Many millions of all religions and groupings are terrified in our region. Terrified to express their opinion, to live their faith, to stay in their homes, to keep their names, to maintain their balanced and peaceful views of life, and to keep any hope regarding the future. Actually, the strongest two weapons utilized in the contemporary wars of the Middle East are those that create terror and those that lead to chaos. Consequently, the majority goes silent as no strong speech will rescue and no arrogant speech will respond to the type of physical cruelty that is rampant.
– You go silent when you are waiting. This may be wise, since so much is still tentative, or disappearing, or sliding. Quick to listen and slow to speak is a biblical wisdom one needs to use. So much more could change and settle or collapse in one way or another. This wisdom is necessary for leaders and followers alike. But also some people in the middle or the peripheries of the storm are creatively and benevolently busy when waiting. Some are doing relief work, finding new ways to survive, others are hosting the destitute, or simply accompanying people in need. Literally millions of families in the region are silently trying to handle the mere basics of human necessity. When asked, one person in Aleppo said much of the day he was making sure the daily need for water was satisfied. Securing water also requires silent toil. It is not the right time for him to speak about water, let him first find it!
Graceful speech will always interrupt silence for a life-giving and soul-edifying purpose. This we should believe and work for, as waiting with hope and with hard work is thoroughly rewarded.
So, is this short essay breaking my own silence of these days? Only partly so, as this is the closest I could be to the boundaries of silence. And then there is all that is inserted between the lines of silence and speech, including the silent aspects of this particular essay.
Gladly, wise silence is always followed by moral speech, and I hope that these days will be followed soon by days of life-building speech. Therefore, we have to prepare. Empowered by the silencing realities of our days, and strengthened by God’s graceful whisper in the midst of chaos, we are called to prepare for the time when the speech of speeches will declare: “Let there be light” and all people will continue to be agents of the good the Lord God intends for us and for our world.
The Rev. Paul Haidostian earned his doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1994. He is the president of Haigazian University in Beirut, Lebanon.