The Reservoir of Silence
“We all have within us a center of stillness surrounded by silence.”
January 6, 2021, siege on the Capitol: fears about my country’s political instability dominated
my thoughts and discussions with friends. January 2021 also brought my daughter’s departure to the
East Coast for college and the first month of my retirement after more than 30 years as an attorney.
Each morning started with reading articles on the New York Times News app as my espresso
percolated. I checked my phone several times a day for the latest on COVID, state legislative
proposals to restrict voting rights, and the controversies in Congress. From then until now, as Russia
continues its invasion of Ukraine, the future has loomed as uncertain and scary. I often have trouble
The battle grounds for divisive speech continue to expand, both within our country and
throughout the world. Contentious conversations happen within families, between individuals in
different faith groups, between individuals across political parties, and between individuals within
the same political party. We are experiencing a tsunami of angry speech.
I grew up in a verbal household, where words carried the intimacy my mother and I shared.
She called me her “beautiful daughter” and listened with careful attention and love to the stories of
my day. But in my teen years I also lived the impact of angry words thrown between my older
brother and me, his words landing like arrows on the most sensitive areas of my body. I sent my
share of arrows across the living room to hurt him too. When the arguments ended, I returned to
silence, my safe harbor, at least for a time, from these battles.
My experience of a planned silence with others started with the Quaker meetings I attended
as a child growing up in the ’60s in Sacramento. My mother on Sunday mornings would drive my
brother and me to a rented meeting room, where a small community of families shared my mother’s
ethical and political beliefs, most visibly expressed in protest marches against the Vietnam War. The
Religious Society of Friends, commonly referred to as the Quakers, practices silent prayer, which
allows individuals to listen deeply to their own thoughts, to meditate, to hear God’s voice within
while sharing a collective silence. On some Sundays, after playing outside with the other children, I
would join the adults sitting in silence in a small circle of light brown folding chairs. Silently I
wondered what I was supposed to think about, and about the thoughts of others. I realized many
years later that the subject of the silence was myself, however that self could find expression.
I cannot know how others live in and through silence. But I know that I pass many hours of
my day in silence, not in conversation. My silence is punctuated by speech. After conversation and
coffee in the morning with my husband, we pursue our interests individually throughout the day,
coming back together in the evening. Yet regardless of whether we live with others or live alone, we
each inhabit a silent world before we fall asleep, and we wake up in the morning to the silence in our
heads. Silence creates the unnoticed atmosphere in which we live.
My childhood experiences of silence remain within me as I struggle to understand our messy
and chaotic world. The divisions of our time may leave wounds that language cannot heal because
words themselves sow more discord. Each speaker holds tight to their belief, unable to hear the
other person / opposing value.
The space that lives before we speak and after we speak is the space of silence. What would
silence offer to our political discourse?
A Ritual of Silence in History
In the early 20th century, the ritual of a public silence to mark a collective tragedy started with
World War I, which ended on November 11, 1918, after
10 million civilian deaths.
9.7 million military deaths.
6 million people missing.
2 million dead from diseases caused by the war.
On November 7, 1919, The Times of London carried the declaration of King George V of the United
Kingdom that: “…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…”
Since November 11, 1919, the United Kingdom and many other countries have observed
two minutes of silence at 11 am on the 11th day of the 11th month to mark the end of World War I.
Each year on November 11, the United States observes Veterans Day. On this day, all Americans
are encouraged to observe two minutes of silence to remember the sacrifices and needs of all
On February 25, 2022, Ukraine’s United Nations ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, addressed
the UN Security Council and called for “…. a moment of complete silence to pray, or to meditate if they do
not believe in God, for peace — to pray for the souls of those who have already been killed and for the
souls of those who may be killed….”
A Ritual of Silence in Our Time
Memorial gatherings in response to contemporary tragedies also place silence at the center
of ritual. Emma Gonzales, the student who became the face of gun law reform after surviving the mass
shooting that killed 17 classmates and teachers at her high school, delivered her words on March 24,
2018, to 200,000 people at the nationwide protest “March for our Lives” in Washington, D.C. After listing
the names of each of the dead, Gonzales then entered a silence that lasted 6 minutes and 20 seconds, the
time it took the killer to end 17 lives and injure another 17. Her silence invited me into her loss, and I
saw myself wandering in a barren landscape where innocent people had been killed.
At memorial services and in the streets, mourners for George Floyd lay down, kneeled, or
stood in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to reflect on the horror of his slow asphyxiation
murder by a police officer on May 25, 2020. Floyd pleaded multiple times that he could not breathe.
Yet the officer had his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than 8 minutes and did not release him even
after Floyd stopped crying out and became motionless. Protests attended by hundreds of thousands
of people in over 140 cities lasted for months as Americans from diverse backgrounds came
together to stand up against the racism that Black Americans have suffered and continue to suffer in
Silence is a living, breathing force that helps us hold our grief when faced with forces that
have ripped us apart. Silence can be a collective act that offers individuals a way to carry our losses
when words fail us.
A Ritual of Silence in a Political Forum
A ritual of silence in a political forum is rare, but the United Nations has such a rule. In
1949, four years after the UN’s founding, the body adopted a rule of silence. The history of this rule
includes hundreds of letters from private individuals and organizations urging the General
Assembly to devote a few minutes to prayer. But the 1949 “Report of the Special Committee on
Methods and Procedures of the General Assembly” recognized that members of the UN
“…represent people belonging to nearly every religion, creed, and philosophical outlook in the
world, and that it would not be possible to introduce a public prayer which would satisfy all tenets
and give offence to none.”  The UN then adopted the rule of silence, now known as Rule 62, which
continues to this day. “Immediately after the opening of the first plenary meeting and immediately
preceding the closing of the final plenary meeting of each session of the General Assembly, the
President shall invite the representatives to observe one minute of silence dedicated to prayer or
Dag Hammarskjold, the second Secretary-General of the UN, believed that the spiritual
dimension of our humanity supported the UN’s peace mission. His book Markings, published in
1964 after his death in 1961 in a plane crash in Africa, contains his meditations about his search for
meaning, faith and the spiritual dimension of his life. Found on his desk after his death, his writing
makes no mention of his public life. Markings contains haikus, poetic musings, short affirmative
statements, and questions. The word “silence” appears in many places, including the last sentence on
the first page:
“Still the question:/Shall I ever get there? /There where life resounds, /A clear pure note/In
Hammarskjold designed and supervised the building of the UN Meditation Room, which
opened in 1957 in the public lobby. In the middle of this room stands a six and ½ ton block of iron
ore with an abstract painting of interlocking geometric patterns on one side and benches on the
Hammarskjold wrote the text for UN visitors. His writing, framed on the wall outside the
Meditation Room, begins with the following statements:
(Photo of the wall outside the UN Meditation Room)
“We all have within us a center of stillness surrounded by silence. This house, dedicated to
work and debate in the service of peace, should have one room dedicated to silence in the
outward sense and stillness in the inner sense. It has been the aim to create in this small
room a place where the doors may be open to the infinite lands of thought and prayer.
A New Public Ritual of Silence
If silence precedes speech, all people may hold, however briefly, their emotions and ideas
while considering what may or may not be appropriate to say. Silence can therefore function as both
a container and a filter, keeping the most volatile feelings from producing unreflectively divisive
A ritual of silence may provide a moment of peace for those participating in our polarized
political forums. Once we have experienced inner calm, we can find it again. The words that
introduce this ritual should have a broad, nonpartisan appeal and be easy to understand.
To remember the humanity of those who hold beliefs that clash with our own, the
statements below can introduce a ritual of silence in a political forum:
“Whatever differences in values individuals may have, we affirm the importance of living in a
community where fear, anger, and mistrust do not rule. We can listen to each other. We can
remember that the ability to resolve our conflicts peacefully is within our reach. Before we
begin this public meeting, let us have two minutes of silence.”
These words recognize that silence can be both an individual and a collective act of healing.
We can reinvent ourselves in our civic lives, both in our speech and in our habits of silence.
Our words and our silence in the public forum can reflect not just who we are but who we desire to
Since my childhood, silence has remained a dependable friend, always present to provide
comfort. Facing any difficult conversations, I can still withdraw to my interior landscape of quiet
before returning to speech. I may inhabit this quiet home for the briefest time in a conversation that
requires me to participate actively in the exchange of words. Yet whether for a few seconds, a few
hours, or longer, silence allows me to consider the many ways to repair what has broken.
 Dag Hammarskjold, Secretary-General of the United Nations, 1957
 The General Assembly, which is the only body of the United Nations in which all members are
represented, discusses issues and makes recommendations.
Vera Sandronsky lives in Northern California and retired in 2020 from a long legal career as an attorney.
In addition to her writing practice, she devotes a substantial amount of time to political activism on local
and national issues. In spring 2016 Vera had an essay published in Jewish Currents about her daughter’s
bat mitzvah. https://archive.jewishcurrents.org/a-year-of-learning-one-familys-bat-mitsvah-journey/
In 2020 she participated in the Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference, and her essay “A Turning of the
Seasons” won second place in the memoir category. She hopes “The Reservoir of Silence” offers new
perspectives to the reader, both about the past and how we can understand the multiple changes of our