Silence is a word pregnant with multiple meanings: for many a threat; for others a nostalgic evocation of a time rendered obsolete by technology; for others a sentence to boredom; and for some, devotees of the ancient arts of contemplation, reading, and writing, a word of profound, even sacred importance.
But silence, like so much else in the present world, including human beings, is on the endangered species list. Another rare bird – let’s call it the holy spirit of true thought – is slowly disappearing from our midst. The poison of noise and busyness is polluting more than we think, but surely our ability to think.
I am sitting on a stone step of a small cabin on an estuary on Cape Cod. All is quiet. Three feet in front of me a baby rabbit nibbles on grass, and that nibbling resounds. A mourning dove moans intermittently. I see the wind ripple the marsh grass and sense its low humming. I feel at home.
I am dwelling in silent stop-time.
It strikes me how rare silence has become; how doing nothing seems so un-American. Noise and busyness have become our elements. While I watch the rushes sway, I wonder why wherever you turn people are rushed and stressed. A frantic anxiety prevails everywhere. Whether you ask the young, the middle-aged, or the retired, they all report stress and lack of time. “It’s crazy,” you often hear them say. “It” is never defined.
Clearly there are powerful forces that profit from this noisy busyness, this connected way of technological consumption, this contraction of time. Everyone seems to have their reasons why they are in such a state, but few imagine how and why it may be “engineered.” They don’t have the quiet time to do so.
Or they don’t want to.
When I speak of noise I am not thinking primarily of the din we associate with city life – cars, trucks, taxis, horns, sirens, congestion, etc. – a world rushing to get somewhere for unknown reasons. That noise, alas, is hard to avoid, even in small towns or suburbs. If I travel a half mile from where I sit in silence, I will encounter such noise as people speed by in cars on their search for a vacation from it.
Being in a secluded spot on Cape Cod for a few days is a luxury. I realize that. So too is having these minutes to write these words. Yet I know also that I am choosing to do so, and that for me the luxury is also a necessity. How could I live without “doing nothing” in silence? Even the computer I am typing these words on tells me I am wrong: it wants to correct my words “doing nothing” to “doing anything.” I’m surprised it doesn’t tell me that I should be having “fun,” though perhaps doing anything is the equivalent.
The noise of modern life is hard to avoid completely, and, in any case, it is the least disruptive of the silence I have in mind. There is another kind of noise that is self-imposed and whose purpose, consciously or not, is to make sure one is not “caught” by silence. As those who flee from silence know, it can be dangerous to one’s reigning assumptions about self and the world. Noise seems more comforting.
We all know people who go from morning till night, day in and day out, without ever pausing to enter the sounds of slow silence. One doesn’t have to look far for them; technology has made them the rule. They race through their lives in the cocoon of technological noise. They’re informed, in touch, tuned in to everything but their own souls. They drown themselves in the incessant noise of televisions and radios, or the busyness of telephone calls, texting, or trivia “that has to be done.” They are always planning, going, organizing, and scheduling activities. Or talking – endless chatter about the weather or shopping or the latest mainstream media’s blaring headlines.
They choose to fill their lives with distracting noise in order to avoid the silence that might force them to confront issues of self-knowledge that are the stuff of great books, true art, a fully human life; self-knowledge that connects the individual to his social circumstances in his historical period; knowledge that might allow them to grasp the sources of the profound anxiety and despair that induces their franticness. This is what C. Wright Mills called the sociological imagination.
For fifteen years the United States has been living under an official state of national emergency and constant, paralyzing fear – a fear that keeps people moving as fast as they can so they don’t stop and look back and see what has happened to them and why and where they are heading – over the cliff.
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