Blessed Moments of Shared Silence

National moments of shared silence are opportunities for communion and transcendence, but no guarantee of them

By grace rather than planning, I was in Glasgow Cathedral at 11am on 11/11, the national UK moment of silence to commemorate the nearly one million deaths of The Great War. The cavernous building was empty save for a dozen or so tourists, most of whom, like me, had to be reminded by the presbyters of what was about to occur. Although the silence is two minutes by rule, those present stayed quiet much longer, clinging to the peace and solemnity like a dwindling but still intoxicating love affair.

In a different year, the moment of silence came when I was in Paddington Station. It was awe-inspiring in a less intimate but still powerful way as a myriad of bustlers came to a reverent halt.

These moments of shared silence are intended as communions with the dead, but they also build connections among the living. All of us, with our varied daily concerns, set them aside for the sake of a cultural moment of grief and remembrance.

I wouldn’t cheapen the slaughter of Ypres or the Somme by suggesting that national moments of shared silence be made more frequent specifically as a remembrance of World War I. But fancifully I wonder: Would there be some social good in the creation of more shared moments of national silence? What would happen if, even two or three times a year, a country asked its citizenry to take a few shared minutes from texting and tweeting and twerking to instead be silent together?

What would people contemplate in the absence of all the quotidian distractions? Would they reflect on whether they were living their life in keeping with their values? Would they pause to feel grateful for what they have and resolve to be more compassionate towards those who have less? Or would they just dread the lacuna in the otherwise ceaseless cacophony and plan their next stock trade or iTunes download?

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

6 thoughts on “Blessed Moments of Shared Silence”

  1. I can’t answer your questions, but I recall that on the first anniversary of 9/11, no one said anything. My favorite memorial service ever. Sometimes there are no words. And as someone who still doesn’t “get” WWI — despite reading books about it which never quite explain it somehow — I am glad to hear about the silence. I’m with you.

  2. I was once in a London hotel room at 11/11/11. But I was still silent for that minute. [That moment of silence is one of the many good things the British do.]

  3. John Custance was a British Intelligence officer who wrote of his experiences of what was once known as manic-depression before it was called bipolar disorder. His book, Wisdom, Madness, and Folly, is most eloquent but is sadly out of print. The silence of 11-11 precipitated one of his manic episodes; the reader will have to decide if it represents some form of brain pathology due to bad neurotransmitter chemistry:

    The first symptoms appeared on Armistice Sunday. I had attended the service which commemorates the gallant dead of the “War to end Wars.” It always has an emotional effect upon me, partly because my work has had a good deal to do with the tragic aftermath of that war in Europe. Suddenly I seemed to see in a flash that the sacrifice of those millions of lives had not been in vain, that it was part of a great pattern, the pattern of Divine Purpose. I felt, too, an inner conviction that I had something to do with that purpose; it seemed that some sort of revelation was being made to me, though at the time I had no clear ideas about what it was. The whole aspect of the world about me began to change, and I had the excited shivers in the spinal column and tingling of the nerves that always herald my manic phases.

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