I’m standing in a Whole Foods trying to parse the complicated labels — what is the difference between whole grain and whole wheat? Suddenly the generic background music stops and a calm male voice announces, “It is now 8:46 a.m. Eight years ago at this time, the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Please stand and observe a moment of silence for those who lost their lives and loved ones.” The other shoppers freeze, and I can feel the silence stretching from person to person like taffy. Empathy is communicated without words.

“Thank you,” the announcer says, and the silence is over as suddenly as it started. The tinny background music resumes and the busy New Yorkers return to filling their baskets.

I’m still in the bread aisle, but all thoughts of whole grain and wheat have escaped me. I wonder, why do we only have communal moments of silence when we are remembering something awful? I love that the strangers in the store could stop for a moment and feel together, but I wish they could experience the tranquil silence that I do every Wednesday morning when my school observes Quaker silent meeting.

I wish they could sit in a 300-year-old meeting house, decorated only with layers of chipped paint and the sunlight streaming through the window panes. I wish they could feel the rigid gray benches and scratchy red cushions and be enveloped by the heat radiating from 200 members of their community. I wish they could hear the conversation die down and the silence seep through the room like water color spreading on thick paper. There’s no set procedure, yet somehow the quiet always follows the same score — first there is the coughing and rustling and then the bored eyes roaming around the room, but finally there is a moment when everything stops. Silence absorbs your mind’s voice. You’re no longer thinking, but you’re still feeling. An overwhelming yet unspecific togetherness washes over the room and reaches you, bathing you in warm silence. But as soon as you consciously observe this feeling, the moment is over. Your thoughts have interrupted and the voice returns. Soon, you see others shaking hands, formally breaking the silence. You turn and shake your neighbor’s hand, and a physical connection replaces the intangible.

They say that silence is the complete absence of sound, just as black is the complete absence of color. But when you put black ink on a little bit of moistened coffee filter, all of the colors separate and you can see the different kinds of ink the black is really made of. Silence works the same way. The way silence feels depends on what it is built upon. If it is forced on you, silence is oppressive. If it is the result of a lull in conversation, it is awkward. If silence is in observance of a loss, it is heavy with grief. We avoid silence because it often seems charged with emotion. But silence itself is not inherently emotional; it is a conductor of connection.

Now that I am an adult, I crave that sense of pure connection that I took for granted in grade school, on those Wednesday mornings in the meeting house — the kind that I wanted to share with the Whole Foods shoppers more than a decade ago. I look for it on my morning walk to class, trying to think of nothing but the warmth of the sun on my back, but I’m surrounded by headphone-plugged ears and greetings from familiar faces. I seek it in museum galleries, but I hear slicing whispers and the shutters of iPhone cameras. I wait for the satisfying quiet at the end of a long symphony, but applause pierces the air before the vibrations of the final note have even had a chance to fade. I look for it in the library, but my books call to me, their words bouncing between my ears.

As a kid, I used to measure the strength of a friendship by whether or not I could comfortably eat a meal with someone in silence. I used to sit in the meeting house, feeling the rigid benches on my back and letting my mind empty. There may be naked parties, but there are no silent parties. We discuss, we debate, we protest. We cover ourselves with words, afraid to hear the thoughts in our heads or to feel the presence of others. There’s no room for silence.

Laura Michael laura.michael@yale.edu