On the qualities of silence

There’s an article going around the net about what drowning sounds like. The short version is, when someone is really drowning, there’s no splashing, no screaming–people who are drowning are silent, because when you can’t breathe, you don’t have the resources to do anything else, not even call out to those around you for help.

And I thought: this isn’t just true for literal, in-the-water drowning.

(Trigger warning: discussion of witnessing suicide attempts.)

In the past decade, I’ve had two friends attempt to take their own lives, one successfully, one unsuccessfully. (Two friends whose attempts I knew about in the immediate aftermath–otherwise the number is higher.) I’ve also witnessed a stranger throwing himself from a balcony. We talk about hearing cries for help, and berate ourselves when we miss them, but the only thing these three otherwise very different attempts had in common was how silent they were: my friends had been quietly withdrawing from those around them for months or years, and the gentleman on the balcony was quiet in the minutes before he leapt, too–and even in that final instant the only sound was his running footsteps.

Sometimes there’s a stage before in-water drowning called aquatic distress, when someone still has the resources to yell, to thrash at the water–to take steps to save themselves, like grabbing a thrown ring or lifeline. But not everyone who drowns shows signs of aquatic distress first, so that can’t be counted on. It’s only in movies that there’s always splashing before someone goes under.

One could learn to watch for silence, to take that as the warning sign in the absence of others–but outside the water, it’s not that simple, because not all silence is a warning. Even in the water, I was the sort of kid who could quietly drift along in a bay or pool, holding unspoken conversations with imaginary friends, happily wrapped in the same silence I seek as an adult when I turn to nature or reading or writing. Any introvert knows that there’s a kind of silence that’s grounding and soul-filling and not only right, but necessary.

And that’s the … problem? Challenge? There’s more than one kind of silence, one that’s deeply alarming, one that’s deeply necessary. The above article is right that in the water, if a child goes quiet, you need to check it out regardless, but on land, it’s so much harder. If we interrupted every silence with a cry of, “what’s wrong?” we’d be denying a lot of people something they need. Introverts also know how jarring it is to have someone break into their thoughts to ask what’s wrong when they’re just being, well, thoughtful.

From within, we can often tell what our own silences mean: whether something’s right or something’s wrong. Even outside of drowning, there are healthy silences that mean all is well and unhealthy silences that mean some internal mental maintenance is in order.

But from the outside, it’s so much harder, maybe impossible without training, to read other people’s silences accurately all the time. Especially since people who are drowning and people who are just fine are equally likely to respond, when asked, by saying they’re fine.

I don’t have an answer to that. But it is something I’m continuing to think about.

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