Silence is a powerful thing. I’m thinking of a striking image that has recently been making the rounds on social media and the web; it shows a small boy standing with his arms spread in front of a protest march of thousands of people. (The photo recalls the famous image of “Tank Man” in Tiananmen Square.) The march, which took place in Celaya, Guanajuato, in Mexico, was organized by the Frente Nacional por la Familia in order to protest recent same-sex marriage proposals in the country.
What the child (who is only 12) did is astounding: astoundingly brave, astoundingly precocious, astoundingly human.
What is perhaps more astounding is the way his action has emotionally impacted millions of people around the world. Indeed, that such a brief moment of courage can be taken up as a point of unity by so many diverse people is surely one of the greatest testaments to the power of photography—and of social media—of recent times. But it is also a testament to the power of silence. The kid didn’t have to say a word to bring all of this about; he didn’t write an article or a philosophical treatise or a personal anecdote about why he thinks same-sex marriage should be legal. He simply stood up in the face of something he didn’t like; he simply made it known that he was entering the ideological arena, and not on the side of the Frente Nacional.
There is also much pleasure to be had in silence. I recently spent a weekend at SMU’s campus in Taos, New Mexico, and was moved—as always—by the immensity of the stars—the Milky Way opening up like a brilliant scar above, so wet with possibility that you can almost reach out and touch, even taste, the other planets that might be—that scientists keep telling us might be. I remember sitting under the night sky with my friends, not talking—after a certain point, with very good friends, there is simply no need to talk in a place like that—and all of a sudden hearing a pack of coyotes howling close by. The silence of the night that had enveloped us was broken, but we really didn’t mind. The coyotes and the nocturnal stillness were part and parcel of the same organic whole; one without the other would be strange and unnatural. So we took what we were dealt and relished in it all.
I also spent much of the summer in Spain; I remember sitting on a gentle park hill in the city of Santiago de Compostela, overlooking the Cathedral to which pilgrims have been coming for well over 1,000 years to make the final leg of St. James’s Way. This is a silence of a different sort: one heavy (though not overburdened) with the weight of history and countless people long since gone who—just maybe—were in many ways like me. Like us. I remember, too, the cloisters of the monasteries: Even in the busiest of cities, those four walls create an interior tranquility that puts even the least religious among us in some sort of spiritual way. It is no surprise that we often connect most intimately with ourselves through silence; paradoxically, it is also through silence that we find connections to others, to the human community as it has expressed itself since the beginning through art, religion, history, poetry, beauty.
Silence cannot do everything, however. I’m thinking here of the great Simon & Garfunkel lyrics:
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
No one dared
Disturb the sound of silence.
This seems to pretty well describe our current state of affairs: political, cultural, and otherwise. A great divide has seized us all, and we are more likely to lamely quip about how “we don’t like talking politics” when what we really mean is that “we don’t like talking politics with people we don’t agree with”. This has to change. Such change does not mean hedging on radicalism or whatever position one chooses to take. It does mean refusing to give into the temptation to ignore or spurn others and cease discourse simply to avoid vulnerability and discomfort. That’s not the silence I’ve come to love; it is at most its bastard child, its maimed and forced and barely recognizable form.
This, then, is an appropriate mission statement for Hilltopics: to be vulnerable so that we might learn. To make ourselves and others uncomfortable for the sake of enlivening the discourse of every sort that occurs on this campus. To relish in words: those mysterious and miraculous things that, for us, constitute the world and make our minds interesting places in which to live. To do things that please us, however strange or quirky or controversial. To be inspired by people like the boy from Celaya and declare ourselves openly in support of movements we find important, and against those we find abhorrent. More than anything, to use our words smartly, strongly, and sparingly, so that our silences might be more fruitful, powerful, and full of the wondrous delight of looking at the stars and feeling that they are looking back at us. We hope you will join us for the ride.