On Silence

July 1st, 2016

lighthouseBy 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?”


“Umm, phttt.”



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.

It’s Embarrassing

June 1st, 2016

GOS616By Michael W. Gos

Washington on the Brazos, Texas

Sometimes life can seem overwhelming.  We often feel completely burned out after long periods of intense work or during difficult times in our lives.  In response, we can start to feel sorry for ourselves and sometimes, in extreme cases, just shut down completely.  I know I do.  I’m sure it’s not much different in your line of work.

By the end of a semester, I am absolutely spent.  Unfortunately, in academia, in that last week or two of every semester there is a mad scramble to schedule meetings. This happens mostly to make up for the fact that the chairs of committees have failed to do anything all semester long and are afraid that maybe someone will notice.  Committees have to have some progress to report, and administrators have to rush to do things before the faculty disperses to locations around the world.  As a result, the last week of the semester is filled with giving finals, grading finals and attending up to four meetings a day.  I’m sorry for others who feel guilty about their lack of performance, but that does not constitute an emergency on my part.  In the last week of the semester, I do what I have to do in order to finish out my classes properly, but that’s all.  The meetings go on without me.  And all the while, I’m thinking “poor me.”

Sound familiar?

We were at Washington on the Brazos to learn more about the founding of Texas as a nation.  I was especially curious as to how Texas became so small when in 1836 it covered parts of what are now New Mexico, Colorado, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas and even stretched into Wyoming. (It turns out that reduction in size happened much later when Texas sacrificed its independence in order to join the U.S.)  I had been to the Alamo, to Goliad, Gonzales and San Jacinto.  I even walked part of the original El Camino Real, but I was still vague on the political part of the picture.  How did Texas get a Declaration of Independence and a Constitution written and ratified unanimously in just over two weeks?

Richard, our guide, told us the story in vivid detail.  While the constitutional convention may have lasted only 15 days, some of those days were pretty trying.  Independence Hall was then pretty much as we see it today—a small wooden structure originally designed to be a mercantile store.  It had cutouts for windows, but no glass—just a few raggedy muslin curtains that they hoped would keep the harsher elements out.  When the delegates began deliberations on March 1, 1836, it was a warm spring morning.  But by that afternoon, when they had agreed on and signed the Declaration of Independence, the temperature had plummeted and rain pelted the building.  But weather was just the beginning of the difficulties they faced. The tiny structure housed the 59 delegates morning till night, day after day in the heat and the cold.  Bathing was uncommon back then so I can only imagine the smell.

When they finally disbanded with the constitution complete and ratified 15 days later, Santa Anna’s army was less than 60 miles away.  Whatever peace the delegates had in their lives prior to that fortnight was now gone.  Having finished their work, their signatures on the Declaration made them all marked men.

When Santa Anna’s troops arrived a few days later, they found the town completely deserted.  Afraid for their lives by mere association with the events that took place there, every one of the town’s residents evacuated with the delegates.  Washington remained a ghost town until Santa Anna was defeated at San Jacinto.  For all they knew at the time, the revolution could have taken years to play out.  And what if they came up on the losing side?

I tried to imagine what their lives must have been like then—on the run, looking over their shoulders all the time, never being able to rest and relax.  Frankly, that’s not much of a life.  There also had to be some degree of guilt over the decisions they made.  Before they left, they had learned about the fall of the Alamo and the Runaway Scrape (the evacuation of the women and children of Gonzales and the burning of the town).  They were clearly aware of the consequences of their actions.  That had to weigh heavily on their shoulders.

Looking back we see them as heroes, as the men who gave us the lives and the Texas we have today.  But sometimes I wonder if we ever think about what they had to live through, the sacrifices they made, to make it happen.  At the end of a semester I can just say “no mas” to constant demands on my time and energies.  I can feel sorry for myself and go home, hide and “lick my wounds.”  These men could not go home.  They no longer had homes to go to.  And for them, it wasn’t just a matter of being emotionally and physically spent; it was dealing with the ever-present danger of death.  Rest?  That was out of the question.  They had to keep running and keep fighting.  For them, it never let up.

The average age of the men at the convention was just over 37 years.  We may think of that as young today, but these were, in their time, aging men who I’m sure would have rather been thinking about relaxing in retirement than running from the Mexican Army.  Yet they chose to make this sacrifice.


I have to admit, I don’t understand what causes a person to make the decision to give of himself that way.  Surely they were aware of the consequences of their actions.  And yet they chose to sacrifice the peace, safety and tranquility we all desire in order to accomplish a goal they believed in—one they might never live to see come to fruition.  I know I could never do that.  Maybe it’s selfishness, maybe cowardice, but it is not something I am, or ever would have been constitutionally able to do.

I guess that is why they are famous historical heroes and I’m just me.  I’ll probably continue to moan and whine about my workload, especially at the end of every semester, and I’ll continue to feel sorry myself.

And I’ll try not to think too often about the 59 men at Washington on the Brazos in the spring of 1836.  The comparison embarrasses me.

One More Click

May 1st, 2016

LonghornsBy Michael W. Gos

Boerne, Texas

I was sitting in the park by the bronze longhorns when it “clicked.”

Boerne is a small Hill Country town that is sort of a miniature version of Fredericksburg.  Or perhaps Fred is Boerne on steroids.  Both are the shop-till-you-drop kind of places that can keep women occupied all day.

I can’t shop.  Like most humans, I was born with the shopping gene.  However, like most men, I decided early in life to sacrifice the shopping gene in exchange for a special gene that allows me to go to the bathroom alone and to find my way in and out quickly.  I think it was a good trade.

Normally, I would find a local watering hole and stay there until the women-folk were satisfied with their day’s work and then we would all go on to The Creek restaurant for dinner.  But this day was magnificent—a Hill Country Chamber of Commerce kind of day.  I decided to instead sit with my girlfriend Maggie Mae (remember her?  My Labrador retriever?) in the park and just watch people and maybe read a little.

Of course, whenever that happens, it isn’t long before my thoughts turn to philosophical questions.  The first topic that jumped into my head was happiness.  After all, isn’t that just about everyone’s No. 1 concern in life?  It certainly has been a hot topic among philosophers for at least the last two and half millennia; they all ask the same questions.  Strangely though, I don’t remember reading many answers.

That got me thinking.  Why would there still, after all these centuries, be such an eternal seeking for truth, happiness and the meaning of life if the answers really existed?  Surely after more than 2,500 years, someone would have stumbled on an answer.  If any of the great minds did so, they never bothered to write it down.  And if these guys couldn’t find the answers, why would I be so arrogant as to think I would be able to?  That left just one option: one can only assume the answers simply don’t exist.

When my thoughts lead to an unpleasant impasse like this, it always makes me uncomfortable and I usually try to escape by changing the subject—thinking about something else.  Sometimes I get up and walk around to get my mind off it.  But walking down Main Street with nothing but little shops selling things I have absolutely no interest in is not my idea of a good time either, so that would have been even more depressing.  Instead, Maggie and I decided to just close our eyes and take a nap.

I’m not sure how long it was; it felt like just seconds.  I heard a loud click, almost like a door latch snapping into place.  That woke me up.  I looked at Maggie and saw that she, with her super hearing, was still out cold.  I looked around at the few other people strolling through the park.  No one else seemed to be disturbed by the sound either.  I decided I must have been dreaming.

Studying philosophy is a lot like trying to open a safe that is guarding a treasure.  We want the treasure, in this case, the secret to happiness.  But in order to get it we have to go through a series of very exacting steps in precisely the right order (left 16, right 34, left 22). Each number we dial in appears to do nothing, a tiny click at best.  But in spite of that, we dial on because it is human nature to continue the quest for fulfillment.  Sometimes that quest requires a journey that takes years—maybe even the bulk of our lives.  Most of the time we get the numbers wrong and the safe remains solidly locked, holding the answers inside.  It is only when each of the tumblers is properly activated, when everything is aligned precisely in its proper place that the door opens. I think that is what happened that afternoon.  The click I heard was that last tumbler falling into place.  And then, I finally understood.

There were times in my life when I absolutely knew I was unhappy.  I even admitted it out loud to a friend once, an act I consider to be extremely crass and almost never let happen.  When I was unhappy, there was never a question about it.  I knew it and felt it deep in every fiber of my being, 24 hours a day.  But what about the rest of the time, times when I didn’t feel that way—when I wasn’t profoundly unhappy? Mostly, I felt nothing.  I had no awareness of being either happy or unhappy.

Sure, there were times of occasional ecstatic highs—times when I was in love, or had accomplished some goal I had struggled long and hard to gain.  But I was always abundantly aware that these were momentary blips on the happiness monitor.  They did not constitute true, long-term happiness—just a nice break from the dullness.  Most of the time, there was nothing at all, no awareness of happiness or the lack of it.  That is, until that afternoon in Boerne when I heard the click.

Sitting there on the bench napping, the last tumbler clicked into place and years of searching finally came to fruition.  The door to the safe opened.  I never would have guessed its contents.  The treasure I had searched for in vain for decades lay there before me.

Looking inside, I saw the whole picture.  I realized that, except for those times when I was clearly unhappy, I had really been happy all along—all those years.  I know what you’re thinking—what is this lunatic talking about?  Well, it’s really quite simple.  When I felt nothing one way or the other, it was because I was really happy.  The question is, why did I not realize that sooner.  Why did I understand it now?

There in the park in Boerne, I realized that happiness is like air…we are only aware of it in its absence.  It is around us all the time.  And like air, we take its presence for granted to the point where we no longer even notice it.

As Maggie came awake, opening first one eye, then the other, I couldn’t help but smile.  I thought about just how easy it is to determine if you are happy.  If you have to ask yourself if you are happy, you are.
And then a man, who for the first time knew that he was happy, joined the group for dinner at The Creek.

An Inconsequential Destination

March 1st, 2016

gosimg316By Michael W. Gos

Rusk, Texas

For years I had been seeing references to the Texas State Railroad that runs between Rusk and Palestine.  Prison inmates originally built the train in 1881 as a method for shipping lumber from the Piney Woods to the Rusk Penitentiary where they used the wood as fuel for an iron smelter.  The iron produced there was sold throughout the state of Texas until the prison closed in 1913.  After that, the train changed hands a few times ending up in private hands, where it remains today.  A couple of times I heard that it was about to shut down.  Each time the rumor arose, I thought to myself, “I need to take a ride on this historic train before it is gone.”

Frankly, though, I’d also heard that the train was usually filled with kids and the idea of a four-hour round trip ride on a train filled with ankle biters just wasn’t that appealing.  They tell me the “Polar Express” rides in the winter are the worst for adults (but the best for kids).   However, even a normal ride in mid-summer could be trying.  Then one day, I saw an ad for an adults-only wine tasting run.  As I’ve mentioned here before, I am rather fond of wineries so this opportunity sounded right up my alley.  I did a bit of research and a few hours later we had two tickets on the Texas State Railroad.

The trip turned out to be much more pleasant than I had expected.  Of course, we were riding through the magnificent woods of East Texas with lots of streams and springs and trees so dense you could see very few signs of civilization along the way.  That in itself would make the trip worthwhile.  But there was so much more.  Here, in the train car, we were about to enjoy “high civilization.”

I was surprised when the first wine was brought out.  Unlike the little one-ounce tastes you usually get at Texas wineries, these were full glasses.  Even more appealing was that along with the wine, we were served a small plate with three different appetizers.  Since we had to skip dinner in order to make it to Rusk in time for departure, any food was a pleasant surprise.  But the quality—well, let’s just say it was outstanding.   We took our time enjoying the food and drink and chatting with the couple sitting across the table from us.  It was a thoroughly pleasant setting.

About 40 minutes later, we were brought another glass of wine, and another plate of appetizers.  Both were even better than the first round.  And, as the wine flowed, the conversation got more pleasant.

The process repeated again about a half hour later.  As we progressed through the evening, the wines got more full-bodied and the appetizers got more substantial.  About two hours into the trip the train came to a stop in a small clearing in the middle of the forest.  We were told that they were turning the engine around for the ride back to Rusk.  While that was going on, we received the fourth glass of wine and the tastiest appetizer plates yet.

A little while later (I had now lost track of time), we were on our way back to Rusk and were brought another glass of wine, this time very sweet, and a plate of small desserts.  By now people were talking to each other all over the car, not just to those they were seated with.  The intimate wine tasting had become one big, jovial party.

Finally, the last course was a nice port, again served with a plate of desserts.  I don’t have to tell you that the women on the train were ecstatic at the thought of sweet wines and six desserts.

When we finally pulled back into the station in Rusk it was 10 p.m. and we had been gone four hours.  It seemed like 4 minutes.  We had sampled six different wines and had more than a full meal, served in multiple small courses (my favorite way—I love tapas and dim sum houses). Most of all, we had a train full of people who were out to have a good time—and they succeeded spectacularly.

That evening in Rusk, we took a train journey to an inconsequential spot in the woods and then returned—and that’s all.  But as I was driving back to the hotel, I couldn’t help but be aware that I had just experienced a perfect metaphor for life.  I came to Rusk with a goal—to take a trip on the Texas State Railroad.  We left the station with another very specific goal in mind—to travel toward Palestine till we got to the turnaround point and then return to where we started.  We met both goals.

But so what?  Reaching the destination did nothing for us in terms of pleasure or fulfillment.  It was no great accomplishment and our lives weren’t changed in any way by that success.  Ah, but the journey itself!  Now that was a different matter.  While the reaching of our destination was entirely inconsequential to us, the true value lay in the journey itself, in the wines, food and conversations that were happening along the way.

We all need goals to be successful in life, a destination to head toward.  In many cases our goals are about the acquisition of things; we work hard to be able to buy a new car or a fine home.  But, many of our goals go far beyond that.  I might want to learn to be a great piano player, get another graduate degree or spend a summer in Tuscany learning Italian.  Self-improvement goals seem to be of a higher quality than the mere want of “things.”

But regardless of the innate quality in any goal, it seems to me that the anticipation of reaching our goals, and more important, the active pursuit of them, provides far more pleasure for most of us than their final achievement.  As a species, we need to have goals to work toward.  But it is in the pursuit of those goals that our lives happen.  It was in the time spent working toward Palestine, and then back to Rusk, where the real value of this trip lay.  In fact, reaching the destinations was anti-climatic.

Our lives happen not at our destinations, but rather in the journeys we take to get to them.  And it is in our day-to-day lives where we really want to experience happiness, not in those moments of accomplishment.  No matter what goals we have, if we aren’t happy striving for them, we won’t be happy achieving them.

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