The Healing Sound of Silence

A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.

He was hurting. He had shared with me bad news about his personal life, and now it seemed my turn to speak. The seconds of silence while he waited were pregnant, deafening, heavy like lead. Thickness hung in the air and seemed to freight his breath. His pain in waiting seemed almost desperate.

“Say something,” my fix-it impulse urged. “For God’s sake, say anything. Just break this silence!”

We’ve all known this moment. What should we say when someone shares news of a serious illness, job loss, divorce, death or other difficult life event?

To answer this question, first we need to check in with ourselves. In that moment, we may feel many things. Maybe we hurt for them, or feel afraid for them. If we look deeper, maybe we feel inwardly impotent, powerless to give the full measure of comfort – or assurance that things will work out for the best – that our tender hearts crave to offer.

But still we try: We’re prone to say nearly anything to break the silence, offer condolences and give whatever assurance we can that it’ll be okay.  Sometimes we’re right – but not always.

Whose needs do our inner fix-it impulses serve? To what extent do we speak because we can’t bear an extra moment of silence amidst another’s hurt? When we speak, are our words true, or do we say what our own tender hearts need to hear? If we say “it’ll be okay,” do others really believe it, and what if they don’t? Do others feel better hearing these words, or worse feeling misunderstood, duped or dismissed?

If you recognize yourself here, you’re not alone. The human brain is wired with millions of mirror neurons that signal us to feel what others feel. Mirror neurons help us form social bonds and community. When you see someone yawn and then you yawn, thank mirror neurons.  When you empathize with another’s emotions, thank mirror neurons. The catch is that mirror neurons can’t distinguish self from other: that’s why “their” yawns become “our” yawns, and “their” emotions trigger “our” own.  That’s how yawning and emotions can be contagious.

When we feel the impulse to offer fast response to another’s bad news, biologically one reason is that our mirror neurons receive another’s news as our own. Biology helps drive empathy in just this way: we’re apt to feel another’s feelings as our own. That’s also how biology can trip us up: another’s feelings aren’t ours, so we end up responding from our own emotions.

That’s why allowing extra seconds of silence after receiving another’s news – and suffering our own need to speak too quickly – can make a huge difference. It can make the difference between acting from what someone else needs, on the one hand, and reacting from the rapid fire of our mirror neurons, on the other. One is genuine compassion; the other is self-protection.

The extra moment of quiet can help know which is which. We need time for our fired-up mirror neurons’ impulse to recede enough for us to remember an important if inconvenient truth.  The pablum “It’ll be okay,” the saccharine “You’re strong,” or countless other well-intended quick replies, usually aren’t what others need. These words might seem compassionate, but usually they’re our own tender selves trying to short-circuit our mirror neurons’ empathetic hurt.

“But I want to fix it,” the mind pleads. “I want to say something comforting, and fast! It’s cruel to stay quiet even for an extra moment while someone else hurts.”

No, in most cases it’s not cruel to wait that extra moment, because often our “fix it” impulse is the problem. Often we can’t “fix it.” Subconsciously we may imagine ourselves to be “human doings,” people of agency who can better most situations. After all, it’s scary to face our own helplessness. But we human beings usually can’t fix another’s divorce, job loss, death or other hardship – and our mirror neurons have no biological way to understand otherwise. That’s how we are hard-wired to say the wrong thing, or say too much.

The good news is that people who share with us bad news usually don’t want or expect the illusion of a cheap fix. Rather, they need the safety and space to vent – and to keep on venting even after an initial lull, if we’re not too quick to fill the silence with our own self-serving and self-protecting pablum. If we can suffer our need to speak too quickly, often a second vent will come, and this second release will be deeper, more real and more healing. Often what another needs is to share this second, deeper layer – and to know and feel that it’s okay to feel and express it. Only then, after getting past the polite and quick, can another feel like they shared an inner load. Only then are they not alone with it. Only then can we help lighten it.

Jewish mystical tradition teaches that light emerged from darkness and sound emerged from silence. Darkness and silence are incubators for light and sound. Next time someone shares tough news, summon the courage to suffer your need to speak too fast. Odds are that just a bit more caring silence will elicit something deeper, more real and more healing: silence will incubate true speech. And if that silence feels dark, know that darkness can birth a light and healing possible because you dared to more fully open your heart to the healing sound of silence.

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