Imagine for a moment that you’re in a quiet place outside. Perhaps the trees are whistling in the wind, the grasshoppers and cicadas are buzzing, but other than that it’s very quiet. There is no human created noise. When was the last time you were in a place like that?
I can’t remember.
Our modern world is filled with noise at all times, something the World Health Organization has called a “modern plague.” It can disturb “sleep, cause cardiovascular and psychophysiological effects, reduce performance and provoke annoyance responses and changes in social behaviour.”
It’s called noise pollution, and the effects of this disease, they say, are second only to air pollution. Silence, in other words, is not some optional thing.
Noise hurts our bodies as well as our minds. But silence is rather expensive.
A recent article in The Atlantic argues that only the wealthy can afford a quiet environment, using an example from the airport, an irritatingly loud place both inside and out.
Monotonous voices boom over the loudspeaker demanding that some individual report to Gate 22A immediately, and then a few seconds later give some governmental directive, like a George Orwell novel materializing itself in sound waves. There’s the Beeping Cart, the Garrulous Cellphone Chatter, the Crying Child, the CNN Commentator, and so on—all micro diseases within the larger plague itself.
How do we escape it? Well, all you have to do is pay a little extra to be in the Club: “The United Airlines Club promises that, for its $500 annual fee, you will be able to ‘Relax in a sophisticated environment when you wait for your flight.’ Not surprisingly,” the author points out, “many clubs have dress codes.”
Outside the airport, too, the property value is so cheap that only the poor could live there. Jet engines blast overhead at all hours of the day. Cheaper houses have less insulation, as do cheaper cars. There is no escape from this sounding harrow.
Human ears are not meant for this noise. In a primal sense, our ears are danger detectors. Loud noises scare us, and our primitive functions take over to escape the danger. To see this, or rather hear this, simply turn off the sound during a scary movie. It’s surprisingly less scary.
When we hear a loud sound, our brain sends off a hormone called cortisol to rebalance our bodies after being stressed. This hormone cortisol, like ants scurrying over an ant hill at the sound of a lawn mower, spreads throughout the body after loud noises, increasing “high blood pressure, coronary disease, peptic ulcers and migraine headaches. Continued exposure does not lead to habituation; in fact, the effects worsen.”
Many years ago we escaped this disease by simply going to sleep. The stars twinkled, the moon made its long climb, the voices of the day tapered off into a black deep. Everyone went to sleep at night, and the world grew strangely silent. But our modern world does not allow it.
Not only are airports and machines and traffic destroying our ears, but now our phones and electronics inside the house chip away at what’s left of our poor drums. With billions of people now butting in through messaging and bots beeping us during the night, there is no end to the dings and dongs of our devices.
Human beings aren’t like bots. Sometimes we’re irritable or tired or busy, so we’re forced into silence. The future, seemingly, has no time for Silence.
However, there are some activists taking up the fight.
One such creature is a man named Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist who travels the world in search of the last quiet places.
Mr. Hempton is an Emmy award–winning soundtrack recorder, traveling to the deep jungle and the desert sandscape to record an unheard soundscape. He also has a great love for trains. He has been involved with several documentaries like Being Hear and The Soundtracker, and several publications like On Being, NPR, and The Sun. His work can be heard in movie soundtracks, video games, and on Spotify and Vimeo.
I wrote on my blog a few years ago, if I may have the pleasure of quoting myself, that silence requires an extraordinary level of discipline and a commitment to live distraction free. For relationships, it requires an ancient, meditative reflection.
There is also a need for silence between lovers. They must sit quietly with each other from time to time. A long-distance relationship, for example, has no opportunity for being still, for presence, for elapsed time of doing nothing. It must be talk or nothing at all. So much of human interaction, however, is non-verbal, communicated with silence.
A relationship with God also requires this non-verbal communication. In the documentary Into Great Silence, the viewer is drawn into the Carthusian Grand Chartreuse monastery for two years, watching, in almost complete silence, a group of men work around the monastery. The film took twenty-one years to make, and it lasts for one hundred sixty-two minutes—no soundtrack, hardly any speaking, just quiet observation.
It’s an admittedly strange thing to watch, but the point of the film is more to reflect upon yourself than to reflect upon what’s happening on the screen. The same thing happens with John Cage’s 4'33", where no sound is made from the musicians’ instruments for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. It’s art in space, as it were.
Visual art, too, is picking up the fight for quiet. Brice Marden’s For Carl Andre screams with the same postmodern introspection. It is literally a gray canvas. Literally. The placard in the museum says that “Marden uses the medium to remind viewers that they are already looking at an object: a painted canvas.” Some activists are louder than others.
The spiritual life often requires this sort of silent solitude. Everyone has those dark corners of the soul, where our monsters and demons hide their hideous faces. Rather than turning on a light to see them, we must turn off the noise.
We need the silent instruments or the gray canvas to see what we’re already looking at: the world, humanity, our souls.
God is often silent, which I think is the point of monks taking vows of silence. Scripture is full of quietness. The proverbs talk about the tongue, the lips, the mouth, or our words over one hundred fifty times. Jesus was often quiet in front of his accusers, and the times he did speak he was very much in control of his speech. The letters of the New Testament speak about silence quite often. The Rule of Saint Benedict from the sixth century has a whole chapter on the spirit of silence.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the history of the church at the University of Oxford, released a book a few years ago on the nature of silence in the church, aptly named Silence: A Christian History. He also gave the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh on the same topic.
Christianity, in other words, is a case study on silence. It is intrinsic in the Christian tradition. If you are to be a Christian, you are to be a close friend of quietness. But you wouldn’t know it if you looked at our churches or our social media feeds. There is more work to be done.
Of course, it’s impossible to avoid the irony of writing over a thousand words on silence, but perhaps a few more articles are needed in order to talk—quietly of course—about what it means to be noiseless in a noisy world.
Advent is a time of celebrating the coming of the Lord. They say he will come in clouds of fire and mighty angels, riding a horse, with the sound of many trumpets. Flashes of lightning will tear across the sky. They say we will be awed by the glory of his might. Our mouths will hang open. Something tells me that, on that day, the whole world will finally be silent.
Cover image by Johann Siemens.