To Sing or Not to Sing

In a previous post (“Be the lament…”) I deliberately exaggerated the rose/nightingale dichotomy as two ways of being in the world, presenting them as mutually exclusive.  It was pointed out to me that the contrast was overdrawn (thanks, Tahir).

Perhaps we can identify two levels to this issue.  At one level, quiet contemplation and active self-expression do indeed go together, sequentially or even simultaneously.  After all, to express oneself implies that one has something to express, which could not have come into being without a prior period of quiet contemplation.  Furthermore, contemplation is an ongoing process, which means that one can never outgrow the need to think, reflect, reconsider, adjust, re-adjust, revise, correct, improve, and keep on looking for new conclusions as well as fresh ways of expressing them.

At the second level, there is the issue of time.  In the words of the Bible

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot.
A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain.
A time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.

(Ecclesiastes 3)

The point, then, is whether we find ourselves in a time that demands we maintain silence or a time that demands we speak up.  How do we know if this is the time for silence?  If our audience are not ready, or if the song within is not yet mature, silence is preferable.  Be a rose, then; suffer some more, hold the song in your heart, let it grow.  Once your audience is ready, and the song within has reached the desired level of maturity, then it is obviously time to be a nightingale.  Incidentally, Iqbal anticipated both kinds of situations.  This is what he said about “a time to be silent.”

نا لہ  ہے بلبل  شوریدہ  ترا  خا م  ا بھی

اپنے سینے میں اسے اور زرا تھام ابھی

If it is “time to be silent,” you wait, and let things simmer in the background, doing whatever needs to be done in the meanwhile to prevent apathy or stagnation.  Soon there will be signs that the audience is ready, the song is ready, the stage is set, and it is “time to speak.”  You may still be hesitant or unsure, not wishing to sing an immature song but not wanting to let the right moment slip by either.  If that is so, seek advice from those you trust and those who have followed your progress.  Very frequently when one is not able to judge one’s own maturity, a friend or a mentor can do that part.  Listen to what they have to say; they are usually right, particularly if they are unanimous.  This is your sign that the time for becoming a nightingale has arrived.  This is how Iqbal described “a time to speak.”

پیر حر م  نے کہا  سن  کے  مری  رو ید ا د

پختہ ہے تیری فغاں اب نہ اسے دل میں تھام

The dilemma that many of us face is whether to sing or not to sing.  Is this moment asking me to wait and see, or is it demanding that I stand up and speak out?  The danger here is the ego and its deceptive tricks.  The ego tends to be out of sync with the present moment, and it is therefore a poor guide to what should be done now.  In a time that demands silence, the ego may wish praise and glory and so it may throw us in a premature nightingale mode.  On the other hand, in a time that demands full-fledged expressiveness, the ego may wish to cling to a life of comfort and ease and so it may hold us in an inauthentic rose mode.

We learn by trial and error, and by paying attention to the signs.

One Comment

  1. Let me first begin that I do think it is important that we mind our words, try to find the right words for the right time, and “mind our tongue”. To speak deliberately and not “off the cuff” is a very important discipline.
    That being said, sometimes I think people only speak up because they get overly concerned with “outcomes”. I will only speak if a large group of people are going to change their behavior based on my words. This is in big contrast to the Qur’an which doesn’t always have the same idea of ‘successful outcome’ as us mere mortals.
    If you say nothing, then guaranteed nothing will change.
    Silence can imply agreement, complicity.
    I also think you are still missing the boat on the rose angle here. It reminds me of the old Attar story where the Sufi starts crying at the mill. They ask him why he is crying, he says that the mill wheel does more for the people of the earth than he ever can. Sure, the Sufi is a great spiritual teacher, but the mill wheel grinds the wheat so people can get flour and eat bread. The mill wheel never complains, it works a lot, it benefits the whole community, from the rich to the poor.
    I think the key here is if you are going to keep silent, then you need to be “doing things to avoid apathy and stagnation”. What that has always meant for me, personally, is trying to study the subject at hand in further depth. Knowledge is power, and as Merman says, “You can’t go to jail for reading a book.”.

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