These moments aren’t always peaceful. In small, blank moments, I may feel gratitude or delight, but just as often, I recall a hurtful conversation or notice that I feel tired or lonely. But this, too, is part of the gifts of these small moments. If we fill up those few minutes with distraction, we numb ourselves in tiny doses and cut ourselves off from our interior lives.
These seemingly insignificant breaks in the day help us emotionally and mentally; they give our prefrontal cortex a needed break. And they’ve also meant something to me spiritually. “The whole life of Jesus is wrapped in silence and mystery,” wrote Cardinal Robert Sarah. “If man wants to imitate Christ, it is enough for him to observe his silences.”
Silence, as I’ve written in this newsletter, is an essential spiritual practice. But I often envision a life of practicing silence as one with long stretches of quiet, swaths of monastic discipline and solitude, reams of uninterrupted contemplation. For me, that kind of life is completely out of reach and will remain so for the foreseeable future. I can fall into all-or-nothing thinking, in which if I can’t have the monastery, I end up using my lunch break to binge-lurk in online political spats or watch cute animal videos.
But leaving small moments empty, silent and, in some sense, useless is a tiny taste of a life “wrapped in silence and mystery.” Guarding the small silences in the corners of my day subtly rewires my brain, teaching me to allow my time and my thoughts to lie fallow for a minute, to be a little bored and a little blank.
My friend Timothy is a studied musician. He is a violist. I asked him about the function of small breaks in music — of rests. He said that music, like a living creature, needs to breathe and these small breaks, however seemingly brief and unimportant, are what allows a piece of music to live and take flight. He told me that if you filled up every rest in a piece of music, listening to it would be exhausting and would eventually descend into an “undifferentiated mass” that we can’t really take in, attend to or enjoy. Rests in music, even short ones, create rhythm, variety and narrative. They help, he said, guide and change the course of a song.
But he said you have to learn to “play the rests.” It seems easy. It doesn’t require technical skill, the way that it does to play a scale or an arpeggio. But to make good music, you have to learn to honor the small breaks in it.
In the same way, our days, which are so full of work and thinking, of arguing and learning, of disappointments and confusion, of striving and creating, must have moments when nothing much is happening. I filled those moments with loud, funny, angry and interesting voices online. But leaving these small moments empty is what makes the difference between noise and music.