Moments of Silence are Golden: Making Them Meaningful

There is a delightful scene in the film Amadeus when the Emperor tells Mozart that his music is ingenious but contains “too many notes”. The Emperor suggests that Mozart needs only to “cut a few and it will be perfect”, at which point Mozart asks “which few did you have in mind, Majesty?”

During this pandemic, we are overwhelmed with a new susurration: too many moments of silence. Our homes are unbearably quiet compared to the outside world we knew before social distancing. Back then, a casual lunch with friends was often a noisy affair, punctuated by competing conversations, clattering cutlery, and city sounds from the street. We routinely filtered out these annoyances and focused on the banter at our own table. Now, many of us sit quietly at home, alone with our keyboards, streaming services, families and thoughts. Time, once a scarce resource, passes slowly; the silence can be deafening. What can children and adults do with all these moments of silence?

In the United States and in Commonwealth nations, a moment of silence is a deliberate act undertaken, a “short period of silent thought or prayer” shared by a group of people to acknowledge something important. A moment of silence was first used by a national leader, King George V of England in 1919, to observe the “first anniversary of the Armistice, which stayed the world carnage of the four preceding years.” He went on:

“It is my desire and hope that at the hour when the Armistice came into force, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, there may be, for the brief space of two minutes, a complete suspension of all our normal activities. During that time, except in the rare cases where this may be impracticable, all work, all sound and all locomotion should cease, so that, in perfect silence, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the Glorious Dead”.

We routinely pause for moments of silence in the United States. We observe them twice daily as US military bases, at Reveille in the morning and Retreat in the evening. If you are outdoors at these times, you are expected to stop and show respect for the flag. As a result of the 9/11 tragedy, we annually observe six moments of silence, one for each of the four plane crashes and two tower collapses. We do this to remember those who lost their lives, and to never forget that there are people out there that want to eradicate our democratic way of life.

Moments of silence are meaningful because they give us time to think. They allow us to reflect on what is most important in our lives, and decide how to demonstrate our commitment.

As parents and educators, we have already signaled our commitment to our children. During this pandemic, we can demonstrate this commitment by leveraging the silence for shared learning and teaching opportunities. Use a baking project to teach fractions. Watch a movie about World War I and help U.S. history come alive. Turn an argument between siblings into a lesson on sharing feelings and compromise. The children will benefit intellectually through the empirical learning, and emotionally by knowing that you are there for them in these trying times. You will all benefit through the memories you build together.

Do not wish these moments away. We should treasure them as gifts, not sources of ennui. Savor each one, make it count, and reflect on your good fortune.