Kahlil Gibran on Silence, Solitude, and the Courage to Know Yourself

By Maria Popova (brainpickings.org)

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Something strange and wondrous begins to happen when one spends stretches of time in solitude, in the company of trees, far from the bustle of the human world with its echo chamber of judgments and opinions — a kind of rerooting in one’s deepest self-knowledge, a relearning of how to simply be oneself, one’s most authentic self. Wendell Berry knew this when he observed that “true solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation” — the places where “one’s inner voices become audible.”

But that inner voice, I have found, exists in counterpoise to the outer voice — the more we are tasked with speaking, with orienting lip and ear to the world without, the more difficult it becomes to hear the hum of the world within and feel its magmatic churns of self-knowledge. “Who knows doesn’t talk. Who talks doesn’t know,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in in her superb poetic, philosophical, feminist more-than-translation of the Tao te Ching.

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Kahlil Gibran, self-portrait

Two and a half millennia after Lao Tzu, and a century before Le Guin and Berry, Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) — another philosopher-poet of the highest order and most timeless hold — addressed the relationship between silence, solitude, and self-knowledge in a portion of his 1923 classic The Prophet (public library).

When Gibran’s prophet-protagonist is asked to address the matter of talking, he responds:

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You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts;
And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, and sound is a diversion and a pastime.
And in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered.
For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.

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One of Andrea Dezsö’s haunting illustrations for the original, uncensored edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Echoing Hermann Hesse’s insistence on the courage necessary for solitude, Gibran’s prophet adds:

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There are those among you who seek the talkative through fear of being alone.
The silence of aloneness reveals to their eyes their naked selves and they would escape.
And there are those who talk, and without knowledge or forethought reveal a truth which they themselves do not understand.
And there are those who have the truth within them, but they tell it not in words.
In the bosom of such as these the spirit dwells in rhythmic silence.

Complement this fragment of the The Prophet — an abidingly rewarding read in its totality — with sound ecologist Gordon Hempton on the art of listening in a noisy world and Paul Goodman on the nine kinds of silence, then revisit Gibran on the building blocks of true friendshipthe courage to weather the uncertainties of love, and what may be the finest advice ever offered on parenting and on the balance of intimacy and independence in a healthy relationship.

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