IN a time where everything is up for discussion and argument, silence is an underrated virtue. Better still, we claim to appreciate silence as long as we are given the platforms to talk as much as we want.
Living in a passive-aggressive Asian society, this means a lot of teeth-gritting by those who listen to us in politeness and irritation.
A few years ago, I wrote of what someone told me is a Sufi practice: before speaking, ask, "Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary?"
A friend wailed in response, "But in that case, I will have nothing to say!" I really wish she got the point.
This past year, I have been fortunate and unfortunate to be surrounded by nice and not-so-nice people who should know better. I tell myself the less nice are God's gifts to make me a better person, especially when patience wears thin.
When we forget that we are given two ears, two eyes and only one mouth – this means that we have allowed our egos to get the better of us.
In other words – we should listen and observe, and use our brains before we speak. Even reflect for a few days if necessary before initiating speech.
This is a difficult and necessary practice.
A few months ago in Indonesia, I was brought to a brothel area estimated to contain about 400 sex workers. Although the brothels in that area agreed that no one under 18 years of age should be allowed to work there, I saw girls on the brink of 18 and who might well be under the age of majority, beneath the makeup and adult clothes.
It was tiring and frustrating to see well-meaning do-gooders enter the brothels to "help", only to hurt the women with the most inconsiderate questions.
A volunteers, a human rights activist and student, asked me in front of one of the sex workers who was carrying her little girl, "Who is the girl's father?" She pointed at the child as she directed the question.
The sex worker was silent. I was furious. When I returned the following week, I discovered from the sex worker that her daughter was attending a kindergarten nearby and understood basic English.
Later, as we got to know each other better, she revealed that she had decided to accept an offer to live as someone's mistress so that her daughter need not continue living with the stigma of being "a prostitute's daughter".
This was not the only time when this happened.
Not long after the incident, a foreign intern who spoke the local language visited the brothels for the first time.
When asked how her visit went, she said that she met one of the sex workers who was expecting and asked, "Do you know who the father is?"
The woman answered no.
The intern did not stop there. She went on to ask, "Do you care?"
What else could the expecting sex worker say, and even if she knew, how was the father's identity any of the intern's business?
Also, how can anyone assume that a woman expecting a child could not care for the father's identity, especially when she is responsible for raising the child alone?
I know of persons who may respond, "But if she knows, she could do something about it."
To which I ask, does one invite a guest into a home or offer monetary help, without first preparing a cheque or a bed?
Unexpectedly, the woman and I became acquaintances for a brief time when she discovered I was running a yoga class for sex workers. Despite that she was due in less than a month, she insisted on turning up for class. I finally caved in and arranged a separate class to teach her very gentle yoga.
After a couple of private sessions, she told me that she was looking for peace and was terrified as this was her first child. Thankfully, she was taking a break from work – it appeared that one of the other sex workers, who attended church on Sundays, offered partial financial help.
This would enable her to rest until she delivered her child, after which she would return to sex work.
We hear and repeat to each other very often that how we behave in the little things, defines how we behave intuitively in the big things that matter.
When we deal with the sick or abused, it is easy for us to ask questions out of curiosity or mindlessly tell the very victims who suffer that "everything will be all right".
This, despite the knowledge that no one can predict the future.
Bitterly, meeting sex workers who sleep with physically and sexually abusive clients, and watching how well-meaning volunteers and interns behave, has taught me that even the well-educated among us are not exempted from hurtful behaviour.
Book education is not learning, until we learn how to observe and listen. Only then, can discourse exist.