Silence and suffering

The most succinct statements are usually the best. Thus, Kierkegaard’s short essay “What We Learn from The Lilies of the Field and The Birds in the Air” (admittedly not a succinct title but clear enough) is the epitome of his thought, style, clarity, and fiercely unambiguous philosophy of life. In fact he contrasted this view (he was a Christian of his own sort) which he called — “Religiousness A” — with the conventional Christianity of his day, the paradoxical-historical “Religiousness B.”

The essay uncompromisingly presents the lily and the bird as ultimate teachers from which we ought to learn “silence, or learn to be silent” (emphasis his). Speech distinguishes humans from animals, but not necessarily in an advantageous way, for humans fail to master the art of silence due to silence not being their default nature. Speech is only a functionality, opposed to the core of what the lily and the bird teach. The core teaching is simply Jesus’ own statement: “Seek first God’s kingdom …”

But what does this mean, what am I to do, or what is the effort that can be said to seek, to aspire to God’s kingdom? Shall I see about getting a position commensurate with my talents and abilities in order to be effective?

No, answers Kierkegaard emphatically. First seek the Kingdom of God. Shall I give up my possessions to the poor? No, first seek the Kingdom of God. What about going out and preaching the doctrine of God’s kingdom? No, first seek the Kingdom of God.

No duty or imperative should come before the existential necessity of actually doing what the Gospel enjoins as first and primary, of actually pursuing or seeking the Kingdom of God.

But then in a certain sense it is nothing I shall do? Yes, quite true, in a certain sense it is nothing. In the deepest sense you shall make yourself nothing, become nothing before God, learn to be silent. In this silence is the beginning, which is to seek first God’s kingdom.

The “doing” of this state of nothingness is “becoming silent,” an art to be learned. Wanting to speak is a corruption; one should be conscious of a state of fear and trembling to assume the audacity of speaking, about speaking of anything but especially of or to God. But we learn this only by heeding the gospel words, by emptying ourselves for silence, and then realizing that nothing is needful but God’s kingdom.

This is why the words of the Gospel, seek first God’s kingdom, upbringingly muzzle a person’s mouth, as it were, by answering every single question he asks, whether this is what he shall do — No, you shall first seek God’s kingdom.

This sense of silence as method is learned from the lily and the bird. Nature’s silence has of it “something divine” and is objective, not the silence of a mind in which chatter has been reduced but silence as virtually a palatable being.

There is silence out there. The forest is silent; even when it whispers it nevertheless is silent. The trees, even where they stand in the thickest growth, keep their word, something human beings rarely do despite a promise given: This will remain between us. The sea is silent; even when it rages uproariously it is silent.

Even in meadows, farms, natural places where birds chirp, their voices come out of silence, part of “a mysterious and thus in turn silent harmony with the silence …”

The bird responds to the change of season and does not announce or reflect on it but extends it with its modest song. The lily does not comment on the seasons (“We have too much rain” or “Now it is too hot,” etc.) but understands and makes use of the moment, or waits in patience for the unfolding of what is to be.

Kierkegaard contrasts the human response: “O you profound teachers of simplicity, should it not also be possible to find the moment when one is speaking? No, only being silent does one find the moment.” We cannot keep silent about what is around us, nor can we wait and accommodate the unfolding of time and circumstance. But one other characteristic distinguishes the human and animal, and we see it in the bird and the lily: they suffer, but in silence.

The bird suffers, and sighs, but returns, inevitably, to silence. There is no trace of contrived solace, of duplicity, in the bird’s reconciliation with reality. This reconciliation is not in anger but in silence. How different the human being, who would roar in anger like a storm. Rather, says Kierkegaard, “if you could be silent, if you had the silence of the bird, then the suffering would certainly become less.”

Likewise with the lily. It suffers, and like the bird does not dissemble but reveals its condition without disguise. The human who passes by would see the flower suffering. But the passerby does not care about the silent flower withering or bruised, does not notice the flower as “its head droops, feeble and bowed.” But the lily is silent.

When suffering is accepted as precisely what it is, neither more not less, it is “simplified and particularized as much as possible and made as small as possible.” It is not that the suffering becomes less than what it is, but rather that it is no more nor less than what it is. Suffering becomes extended and immense when it becomes indefinite, and is reduced to what it is when its definiteness is again understood and restored. But none of this can happen without our being silent, and this we learn from the bird and the flower.

Kierkegaard offers this counsel not as the “dreamy poet,” the romantic poet who idealizes nature into what it is not. The simplicity of nature contrasts with our own contrived complexity of mind and consciousness. If we are aware of the lily and the bird, we become conscious of their presence before God, and, indeed, our presence before God, even though our chatter and distraction and worldly worries blind us or fill our ears with noise. We lose the capacity for profoundness, depth, and identity. We lose the opportunity to understand. For without being silent, we neither understand God, the birds and flowers, nor ourselves.