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
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
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
- 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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.