By Michael W. Gos
Palo Duro Canyon, Texas
It was my very first trip here. Even though I had planned to visit for more than 15 years, it just never happened. But finally, on this cold, overcast May afternoon I made it to the second largest canyon in America.
We were standing on the edge, staring down into the gorge. I suppose we had been there about 20 minutes, just looking. The gaping hole went on for miles. I had been to the Grand Canyon, and while I realize it is much longer than Palo Duro, I don’t recall any sections of it being as wide as what we were seeing now. It looked like miles to the other wall. And we just stared—not a word was said. We were both speechless.
It was an unusual day light-wise—the sky was almost black. Yet the air was crystal clear. There was one tiny keyhole opening in the clouds that let in a beam of light so concentrated, you could follow it like a white laser beam all the way from the clouds to the floor of the canyon many miles in the distance. Where it hit the ground, it illuminated the spot brilliantly. In the midst of all the gray that morning, we saw the Lighthouse aglow.
The Lighthouse is, without a doubt, the most iconic image in Palo Duro Canyon. But under normal circumstances, you can’t get close enough to see it unless you are willing to hike more than five and a half miles of backcountry. From up here on the canyon rim, it appears so tiny it is almost impossible to pick out. But in that moment, touched by the heavenly beam of light, it glowed. I knew if I tried to shoot through this great a distance with a powerful lens, the photo would look like it was shot on a foggy day, but moments like this come just once in a lifetime. I knew I had to capture it as best I could. My friend Kevin knew it, too.
“Yeah,” I answered. He reached behind me and opened my backpack taking out the long lens. I took off the short one and we exchanged. As I installed the new lens, he put the old one back in my backpack. Nothing more was said.
My wife has always been puzzled by the way Kevin and I communicate. According to her, our typical conversation takes place with us both leaning against the Jeep, looking out at the world, never at each other. To hear her tell it, the discussion goes something like this:
“Uh, grunt, huh?”
But then, she also claims that’s the way all guys talk, so who knows? The fact is, I consider our discussions to be much more verbose than that, but because I am an active participant, I may not be the best judge. I do know that Kevin and I have been best friends for more than 35 years and the last 24 of those years we have lived more than 1,000 miles apart. Still we see each other at least once a year and we always pick up right where we left off last time.
But this was different. There were no grunts, no monosyllablic statements or replies—just absolute silence. I took the photo, put down the camera, and we stood there, continuing to watch as the Lighthouse changed colors, textures, and even appeared to move in the changing light. And in about ten minutes, the shaft of light vanished and the Lighthouse disappeared back into the mass of rock and plants on the canyon floor.
Sometimes it takes an overwhelming experience, like a key-light from the heavens shining on an icon we’ve waited years to see, to shake up our world enough to leave us speechless. Most of us have had a few experiences like this where we are just rocked into silence. Looking back we remember these times fondly. They are the events that make life worthwhile. They are so moving that we couldn’t talk if we wanted to. And that is a good thing because in our silence, we truly say the most.
But silence is more than just an indicator of a deeply moving experience—it is a tremendously valuable skill to possess. If we can manage it, I think we should all do everything in our power to cultivate our ability to experience silence in our lives as often as possible.
There are several reasons why this is so. First, there is the obvious. We all know our tongues keep our ears from hearing. When we are talking, we can’t hear anything around us. I regularly caution my students to be conservative in their note taking. When they are writing (a cognitive equivalent of talking), they cannot hear what is being said in class and they miss much, often including critical information. But less commonly noted is the fact that talking also keeps our eyes from seeing. If Kevin and I had been standing there discussing basketball or the Indy 500, we would never have experienced the magic light that day. We would have been so distracted by our conversation that the event would have gone by unnoticed, like traffic on the freeway.
But the most important reason why we need to cultivate the skill of silence is that we need it in order to do our true work here on earth—our art, our music or whatever creative activity it is that makes us both human and who we are as individuals. Without it, we are doomed to a life of mindless, repetitive, and often meaningless, tasks and activities—like ants. While that may be okay in some jobs or in other mundane situations, for most of us, it is not the kind of work that gives value to our lives.
Silence is the soil in which we plant our creativity. When we are not busy talking, our mind can simmer over an idea or problem, formulate a plan and sort out all of the necessary details before we ever have to put any effort into taking action. Before I write the first word of any discourse, be it a letter, memo, report or this column, I let it simmer in silence for some time. When I am finally ready to write, the piece comes out essentially intact. To an outsider looking in, it appears effortless. And that is because it is. Our minds are capable of incredible things if we just shut up and let them work.
Cultivating the skill of silence is definitely worth the effort. It calms us, relaxes us and makes us super-productive. Most important, it allows us to do the things that really matter with very little effort. For someone watching from the outside, it looks like magic, and I suppose in a way it is.