Research shows that on average, Americans cannot stand silences in conversation that are longer than four seconds. At about 3.5 seconds, we start to think, “This is awkward” and we come up with something – anything to talk about. This fact was driven home to me on a 35 hour cross-country drive a couple of weekends ago. My friend Rod and I found something to talk about virtually the entire time (since we were riding in a car with no real audio or air conditioning.
My grandfather’s generation did not require the constant conversational interaction, and it was not uncommon to sit in his living room for long periods with absolutely nothing being said. His brain had developed differently in a world where there was not a constant auditory bombardment from radio, television, portable music devices and telephones. He was born into a world very different from our own.
By contrast, my daughter does nothing but talk. From the moment she wakes up until the moment we turn off the lights and tell her to be quiet and go to sleep, she talks incessantly. She is surrounded by a word full of not just sounds but words and thoughts. She watches TV, listens to music, and talks with others who are growing up in the same way.
There is a happy medium somewhere in between these two extremes. But increasingly, finding that balanced point requires re-training our brains. We have to push through the awkwardness of silence and attempt to discipline ourselves to form thoughts before uttering them.
Prayer is often an incessant chatter, I think. When people are called upon to pray publicly, sometimes they just throw words out there – formulaic phrases that we all hear in prayer. I know that I used to.
More and more often, I begin public prayer with 5-10 seconds of silence. It forces me to push through the awkwardness and the “pre-planned” phrases that pop into my brain. At about 3.5 seconds, my brain is screaming at me to open my mouth, but by the time I get to 5 or 6 seconds, that voice is silenced and I am able to focus.
I know that sometimes people find it awkward when I do this. Most people don’t realize that because the platform I speak from is higher than the seats in our auditorium, I can hear virtually every movement in the room. The sounds of people rustling in their chairs is quite audible, as if the child leaning over to her parent and whispering a question about whether I am going to start talking soon. We all laugh about these kinds of things, but they do happen.
When you’re praying, don’t be in a hurry to get through things. Take a breath and wait in the silence for a few seconds. Force your brain to align with the moment of prayer by being silent when it wants to be rushing. You will be surprised how different it is to pray after silence.
And when you’re finished with what you have to say, pause again. Let the echo of words fade so you can hear the grace of God’s listening. Don’t just hit God with your prayer list and then get up and run.