Above is a reading of Pablo Neruda’s poem Keeping Quiet. Please click on the poem and read along with Sylvia Boorstein.
by Pablo Neruda
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about…
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was a Nobel Prize winning Chilean poet-diplomat and politician. His poems have been translated into every major language around the world. This particular poem, Keeping Quiet, was written in the 1950s. In the poem, Neruda imagined a world where we slowed down and simply experienced life without feeling the compulsion to always be doing something.
Neruda wanted his readers to contemplate the human inability to sit still. Why do we always feel this need to labor? Why can we not simply enjoy life free from the burden of work? Personally, I am someone who has a constant, almost insatiable, need to keep producing. It is very hard for me to sit still and simply be. When I reflect on this struggle, I can’t help but think that my need to create is somehow connected to my feelings of worthiness. When I work and produce, I feel like I’ve made a contribution; as though I’ve earned my keep.
I know that I am not alone in this struggle. This is how many people feel and, through this poem, Neruda is posing a question: Is this what life is really all about? His answer is no. Life is not about the things that we do. It’s about the relationships we form. It’s about the time we spend with other people. The problem is that we are often too lost in our work to realize the error of our ways. If somehow we could just slow down, then perhaps we would realize how we’ve been emphasizing all the wrong things.
At the time Neruda wrote his poem, the notion that the whole world would ever take a collective breath and stand still seemed like wishful thinking. And yet, when you read his words in light of the Coronavirus, they seem almost prophetic. Here we are in a moment where we are all being forced to stand still. Our larger purpose of working to sustain ourselves has been stripped from us. We sit in our homes and many of us are fretting. We fret because people are dying. We fret because the economy is in free fall. We just want things to get back to normal so we can do what we were doing before.
But perhaps rather than fret, we need to seize this opportunity to do something that many of us have never done before—for once in our lives, we can simply be. We can relinquish our need to move forward and, at the same time, as Neruda says, enjoy the shade with our loved ones.
In the midst of all the uncertainty, stress and anxiety that has come along with this pandemic, I am trying to see the positive side of this tragedy and enjoy an uninterrupted moment or two with my family. I hope you will be able to do the same.