Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 25 October 2015





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Let's hear it for silence

"Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Television, radio and stereo can be vehicles for great drama, beautiful music or even redeeming words. But who can claim that for the vast majority of people these devices are anything other than agents of noise?

They are not listened to; they are only heard. Modern man begins his day with radio noise to wake him up, has a car radio or tape deck to carry him to work, continues with piped-in music in the elevator and "on hold" on the office telephone and concludes his day with televised chatter.

Silence has become a vacuum which modern man abhors. It is no longer normal or good in itself. It is understood only as an absence of noise. Before noise there were sounds, distinguishable from noise, because sounds came out of silence. Silence was the background for sounds.

Having a time of stillness in your life can be similarly wonderful             - Google image

City dwellers, flooded in constant noise, become nervous in the country because the sounds of the country - from crickets, birds and animals - are made against the background of silence. There is also less talk in the country, because to interrupt the silence one must have something to say.

In the City, words are part of the general noise - one can say anything in order not to stop talking and silence is always interpreted as awkwardness. There seems to be a fear that if the noise stops, the city will collapse in the silence.

Ultimate realities

Solitude and silence are the crucibles of serious thought. To flee them is to flee the conditions necessary for the self-examination that makes life worth living. It is to flee as well the peace that can come only from the orientation of one's life to the ultimate realities - realities that can intrude only when one is still and quiet and open to them.

I am often told that people turn on the radio and television because they are lonely. Noise is used as a tonic for loneliness. It is an acoustic drug.

But loneliness is a longing for something which should not be drowned in noise. 1f one quietly searches one's loneliness, one can begin to ask why one is lonely and for what.

Loneliness lets us know that we really have nothing adequate to our deepest longings - not in our friends, not in our family, nor in our worldly goods or pleasures.

In what then or in whom are we to find the object of our deepest desire? This is perhaps the most important question that can be asked, and it can be answered only in silence.

Today, we're lost in the battle for the air-waves, a battle measured in decibels (db), units for expressing the relative intensity of sound. The rustle of leaves in a gentle breeze is ten db, whispers four feet away 20, and normal conversation about 60. Noise becomes annoying in the range of 50 to 70db.

Battle lost?

Louder sounds are rare in nature but common in human settings. Trucks can generate 90 db, jet aircraft 120. Vacuum cleaners can hit 80 db and kitchen blenders 90.

Our ears are new to such sounds and cannot shut them out. The pain threshold for most people is about 120 db, but nervous and endocrinal responses begin at about 70. Noise can coil the human body for action. Blood pressure rises, heartbeat increases, gastric juices diminish, adrenalin seeps into the system, pupils dilate and muscles contract.

Children know silence. They have a capacity for concentration that adults have lost. They can gaze long at a vulture riding wide circles of sky or a horse pulling weeds in a pasture. Children are new to this world, and the immensity of its flash and line and colour fastens their minds.

Adults lose the trick of quiet. Novelty seems hard to find. We are bolted into place by the vulnerabilities that come with family and property. As a result, we are apt to become sentries instead of explorers.

Our urban posture is skulking. We stoop forward, eyes on pavement, ears cocked for approaching footsteps. We grow more aware of noise, less aware of quiet. Yet all of us have dreams of quiet.

We think of hill country meadows with buzzing bees. We know the brittle quiet of a cold December night and the breathless pause, on a warm beach, between the ebb of one wave and the crash of the next.

We evolved in silence. It shapes brave thoughts and fresh images, renews the confidence and liveliness of youth and dresses things in sharp outline. Silence calibrates our thoughts and impulses. Without it we lose a measure of man. But as long as we rank men by the engines they drive, the world will grow noisier.

1 fear we may one day try to set aside silent places, where autos and amplified music are forbidden - and find that law cannot conceive silence, I fear we may look up and find the silence gone. The loss of silence would be the loss of our ability to see people not as the sum of their noises but as the sum of their joys, sorrows, fears and astonishments. Without silences we all become less observant, less thoughtful, less caring, less conversant, less, indeed, of the very things that really do make us a strange and worthy species.


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