When I was a senior at Barnard, back in 1964, Religion majors were required to write a research paper that integrated learning from their college years. I chose to write about “Silence”, the access to something transcendent that is made possible by silence, a nod to the places where words cannot go. This was long before Albert Mehrabian noted that only 7% of a communication comes from the words. I knew then that I loved quiet and that it could have many meanings, ranging from a hostile rejection to a defensive stonewalling to reflective pondering to a sublimely ethereal connection with something that went where words could not. I did not believe that “in the beginning there was word and the word was God.” Rather, I thought God preceded the big bang that permitted sound. God spoke through silence.
Last week I was a juror on a civil case. The judge charged us to use the sum total of our experience and all evidence available from the courtroom proceedings to come to our conclusions. During the trial, we had been ordered not to discuss anything about the case or our reactions to it with each other or anyone else, certainly not with our fellow-jurors or any of the people involved in the litigation. In addition, he forbade us to use any research tools we might have at our disposal, including those we might access through internet searching. We were not allowed to take notes, only to watch and to listen.
At first, I was surprised at the extent to which my conversations outside the courtroom would need to become censored. That would be difficult to tolerate for my retired lawyer-husband. Luckily, he understood the rules. Quickly, however, I remembered how much I had loved the two week-long silent retreats I had been on, those that took my meditation practice to deeper levels. David had joined me on the second one; he would understand.
Jury Duty itself had an other-worldly quality to it: I had needed to reschedule four appointments on the calendar that week and cancel routine exercise plans, business meetings, and social dates. So that my husband did not feel totally abandoned, we retained a dinner date with another couple (but no talking about the case or the experience), and I called in daily during the mid-day break to let him know I was in the courtyard, eating the lunch he had lovingly prepared for me.
The miracle came on our last afternoon of the trial. The rituals and pageantry of the New York State judicial system had marked all of us, the six jurors and two alternates. We had obediently stood in our assigned places to enter and exit the courtroom, sat in our assigned seats, said “Good Morning” and “Good night” but nothing else to each other and waited quietly for the bailiff to lead us down the corridor at the appointed times. We all showed up where we were supposed to be at the appointed times.
When the judge reviewed the questions in the case, read us the law, and released us from our silence, the bailiff collected our cell phones and, finally, we began to talk to one another about what we had all seen and heard at the same time. Six different minds filtered the information we had received; six different personal histories made sense of what we were expected to do with it.
Perhaps it was the lack of talk that enabled us to be the amazing group we became. We reflected diversity – no two of us were from the same town or worked in the same field, no more than two of use were born in any one decade, and we represented a crazyquilt of backgrounds. But we all were there to try to further the goal of finding justice, to bring the perspectives and interpretations of “the common man” to interpretations of evidence.
With an uncanny respect, we listened to one another. We all had things to say; we all focused on whomever was speaking. I don’t know that the words helped us reach our unanimous verdicts as much as did our openness to what we each brought to the table. It was as though our days and nights of silence had enabled us all the reach a higher level, an elevated moral plane, when considering the issues of the case. When we were done, we were all pleased that we felt justice had been rendered and we had played a part. Hopefully, plaintiff and defendant would both grow and never find themselves in a courtroom again.
I was so grateful for the silence, the spaces. Words, in addition to sometimes conveying lies, can also, at best, tell a small part of the truth.