Danny Heitman: At Random: Silent moment helps reset busy day

I was filling out some last-minute forms in the office of my son’s middle school last month — a hurried errand I’d assigned myself before rushing off to work — when the principal came on the intercom and asked everyone to observe a moment of silence.

The hallway behind me, which only an instant before had vibrated with teen-age chatter, settled quickly into quiet, as if a curtain had descended for an instant on the urgencies of the new day.

“The president and Congress will be making some important decisions about Syria,” the principal said. “I’d like for you to think of them today.”

So I put down the form I’d been scribbling on and joined a few hundred young people and their teachers in silently hoping for a better world.

The silence joined us, somehow, in a way that few things ever do. For a small interlude, we weren’t divided by age or race, class or creed, party or gender. The quiet connected us to each other and to something larger than ourselves.

Which is why, I suppose, the moment of silence is such a fixture of our civic life, and why it’s evoked routinely on solemn occasions, such as last month’s anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That moment of quiet is a welcome occasion, apparently, to hear ourselves think, to reflect on what’s really important.

The moment I’d happened upon at my son’s school hit the reset button on my day. As I walked to the car, I felt calmer, saner, slower. The worries of my first waking hours had receded.

My son’s school, like many others, has a moment of silence every morning. There is not always or even usually a theme for the day’s quiet reflection. The kids frequently use the silence as their own mental canvas, a blank space where they can soundlessly register whatever private thought or prayer comes to mind.

Silence doesn’t always have to be a sad or solemn thing, as I’ve been reminded in reading “Sightlines,” a new book of essays by the Scottish poet and naturalist Kathleen Jamie. One chapter of Jamie’s book recalls the visit she took with a group of other tourists to the chilly coast of Greenland. Once they arrive, the guide suggests everyone sit silently. He wants them focused on the landscape they’ve come a very long way to see, and silence seems a good way to ground them in the moment. Jamie discovers she’s not used to so much quiet. Modern life has made this kind of silence seem strange. The silence startles her.

“I know only that I’d never heard anything like it, a silence that could dismiss a sound, as wind would dismiss a feather,” she tells readers.

But what Jamie suggests — and what my visit to my son’s school also reminded me — is you don’t have to go to Greenland to find a moment of silence. It’s available here and now, if only we’ll take the time to find it.