Part I: The Sweet Sound of Silence
It had been six hours since I had seen another human being.
Three days earlier, my brother, Andrew, and I and two friends had embarked on our latest national park adventure in the upper section of North Cascades a few miles from the Canadian border. It is a place where glaciers and salmon abound, where massive trees born thousands of years before litter the valley floor and wild blueberry plants cover the mountainsides. By the end of three and a half days, we would find ourselves traversing through sixty miles of the some of the most isolated terrain in the contiguous United States. We would see barely a handful of people by the time we walked over the Ross Lake Dam less than a mile from our car.
On this particular day, I had decided to hike a few minutes ahead of the group out of camp in the morning and wait for them to catch up. But by the time I ascended the roughly 1000 feet through Big Beaver Pass on a one-way trail to Ross Lake, the contemplative silence of the forest called me to just keep walking until I reached our destination on the shores of the massive reservoir. For sixteen miles, I heard nothing but the sounds of my own perceptions uniting with that of the flora and fauna. I thought about Amy and the kids, who were celebrating an outdoor Mass with my extended family at a family reunion. I pondered all that had occurred up to that point in the year, and that which would come before 2016 was no more. I reflected upon those whom I had seen recently as well as those not seen in some time.
But more than anything, I contemplated the enormous beauty and silence that engrossed me. In what I surmised later was the longest (waking) time I had gone without seeing another human being, each hour brought a surge of joy and contentment that belied the painful blisters on my feet. Any worry or uncertainty from the morning had long subsided, and my body seemed to merge with the landscape. In my isolation, I was anything but alone. I was liberated into a dimension where my serenity was acutely correlated to the supreme consciousness that I felt. I was free to contemplate the point at which humanity met divinity, a place where creativity was as palpable as the artistic brilliance of the forest around me. I had found the silence in my soul.
For as long as humanity has lived, people have sought out silence in their daily lives. Whether in adventure or contemplation or prayer or rejuvenation or adoration, humans have always intuitively known that regular silence is a necessity of life. More recently, though, science has discovered that all human beings need silence more than we probably know. As illuminated in a recent Medical Daily article, benefits extend beyond the obvious opportunities silence provides for rest, creativity, awareness, and discovery. Studies find that walking alone multiple times a week increases hippocampal growth, leading to improved memory. Those who allow even just two minutes of complete silence have positive changes in blood circulation and blood pressure associated with decreased tension. Older adults who meditate in complete silence each day demonstrate improved sleep patterns and decreased depression and fatigue. Not speaking for extended periods of times is associated with heightened sensitivity in other areas, such as thinking, feeling, and overall sensory perceptions.
Despite all the benefits that silence promises, though, it is easy to see that we do not live in a time and culture that supports its pursuit as a necessary venture. It is easy to see that for many people in different places, silence is a feared and uncomfortable entity, whether it is the worry that it will lead to a communication being missed or a thought or feeling least desired. Some sounds may be more difficult to control, like that of the cars rolling by my front window or the three conversations occurring as I write (although some would argue I could move to a quieter place or had fewer kids).
It is easy to blame our noisy existence on the technological changes that have occurred. But much of the noise that remains is of our own immediate choosing. In our daily choices, and those that we make for our kids, the subject of silence deserves an audible consideration. For even beyond the science and wisdom of generations past which convey its utmost importance, there is a mysteriousness that beckons us to bear in mind that it might be even more essential than we know. It begs us to consider that while the greatest risk of the technological climate might be the loss of our silent prerogative, the inverse might still be true. All of us spend much of our day understandably engaged in routinized actions, and at times we respond instinctively to situations that demand an immediate response. Still, the value of our decisions often remains predicated on how we handle, or allow for, the periods of silence that precede them.
The more people lose silence, the less they will discern the decisions they make, which increasingly threaten to become little more than a reaction to the noise around and inside of them. As Thomas Merton once said,
“When society is made up of men who know no interior solitude, it can no longer be held together by love: and consequently it is held together by a violent and abusive authority.”
Yet when silence becomes a close friend, a greater consciousness emerges that is the seed of great growth. At times, silence breeds a painful acknowledgement; at times, a joyful surge; at times, a novel awareness long overdue. For if we are honest with ourselves, quietness precedes a necessary connection to a world that transcends an automatic response to our own fears and desires. We become liberated to do what is needed—to give what we should give, to receive what we should receive, to love whom we should love. Only in silence, are we free to be who we are called to be. Only in silence.
Part II: Embracing Silence in Our Everyday Lives
It is one thing to find silence in the middle of a forest far away from the “maddening crowd.” It is quite another to find it in our daily lives, and do so in a way that is supported by what we do and the people and places that surround us. Yet as noted in Part I, silence remains a critical commodity for our health and well-being, and does not make concessions for the clamor of our times or the demands of our day. Yet even when noise is occurring around us, it does not mean that we cannot still find “intracranial silence”, or freedom from the noise inside us. It is what I describe as “peace of mind.” On most days, I ride a bike to work and am obviously surrounded by noisy vehicles and many other entities that are not quiet. Yet it is one of the places I find silence in my day. This might seem strange to some, as I have to be acutely aware of drivers and other traffic patterns in order to remain safe. But in finding silence in this manner, I am left to reflect on the day that may be and the day that was in a metaphysical space that is not confounded by the words of others, or even many stressors that seem to pause with my movement on the bike.
But I realize that for some, this is not an option. So, I propose considerations for all that I believe would help families make silence part of their ordinary day. These are as follows:
Make sure the home has a number of silent sanctuaries. One of the biggest threats to silence is the fact that so many homes have so few rooms where screens or devices are not available. There truly is something to be said for having a television in one room in the home, and making sure that this room is not the bedroom. When the setup of a home encourages silence, people will naturally seek out opportunities that embrace it, such as reading or drawing or playing a board game. But when homes have devices and televisions scattered all over the place, many remain on for no reason—other than to perpetually disturb the peace (or cover the conflict).
Leave behind the mobile devices whenever possible: Most of us are drawn to the idea that the few minutes before, between, or after an event is when we can get one more thing done. The problem is that it may very well be the time that we should most be silent and reflective, and be acutely aware of what we are thinking and feeling. So often I see people feverishly on their mobile devices in the car or in a boardroom just before a meeting. What are lost are opportunities for reflection and initiation that might occur in real space, not cyber space. We wonder why we always seem so busy. One reason may be because we never give ourselves even a brief break between the events that occur in our lives.
Institute regular periods of silence in the home: A late movie or news program is not a problem. I believe that 3 hours of television every night is. I know that many people regard this as the only way they decompress from their day. But, unfortunately, studies show that screens generally work to activate our brains, not calm them. What may seem like a life saver at the end of a hard day may actually be perpetuating the tension that we already feel. But silence done right, whether in active or passive form, truly allows for a decompression that we all need before the ultimate shutdown of all: sleep.
Put the kids to bed on time, and make sure we do the same: As I have said before, we don’t sleep for an average of 25 years in a lifetime if it wasn’t really important. Sleep is the least respected and most important commodity that we rarely payed attention to until we finally entered the great sleep recession, and are seeing the consequences play out. But second only to the sleep needs we have is the need for all of us parents to have quiet time before we go to bed. While I know that this is especially challenging for working parents and active kids, I continue to be concerned about how late our kids are staying up, both for them and us. In the process, parents thwart their best opportunity for silence, which is most conducive for meaningful conversation and resolute reflection.
Seek out regular opportunities to do mundane activities in silence: A few years ago my brother said that he spent a couple of hours cracking pecans alone in the kitchen with nothing to distract him. It sounded boring until I remembered that for millennium, people used to chop wood, plow the farm, and feed animals in silence for hours on end. Lost in our modern world of multi-tasking is the simple art of engaging in a basic activity that requires little thought, and then settling into a comfort with saying nothing at all. A couple of months ago, I watched the documentary “Into the Great Silence” about the Carthusian monks who live almost their entire lives under a vow of silence. For the first twenty minutes, I wondered how I could even get through the almost completely silent film without falling asleep or getting really bored. But as I settled into the movie, something strange happened. I completely lost track of all time as the film pulled me in; then suddenly, the credits started to play. As these monks know best, freedom from the constraint of time is one of the gifts of silence.
Find the trails nearest you, and become intimately familiar with them: There is no better place to find silence than in the trees. Even for those of us who live in the city, we are not far away from little trails or even grassy patches that summon us to a more peaceful place. Many free sanctuaries exist close by. Oftentimes only when we leave them do we realize just how sacred of places they are.
Go out in rain, snow, and inclement weather: Finally, there is an interesting thing about bad weather. While I am not advocating for anyone to go out in a tornado, some of the most comforting silence I have ever experienced in my daily life is during or after a good snow. Precipitation has a way of muting sounds around us, and so for years when it snows, I will seek out a trail or golf course nearby, climbing over the hills and valleys framed by the crunch of the snow. Rain does similar things, and so often in a good shower, it is wonderful to go out back or find a trail, and slop around in an otherwise quiet place.
Ultimately, these are just a few simple ideas to bring silence back into our lives. But like anything we seek, we must understand that the benefits often occur in mysterious, delayed ways. If we expect otherwise, we set ourselves up to be disappointed. But if we commit to the process, benefits will come. So, if you find yourself cracking pecans tonight in silence and you feel like you are wasting time, just channel your inner ancestor and consider for a second (or more) that for them, it was just a way of life. And a peaceful one at that.
Part III: Why We Fear (and Are Bored by) Silence
It is one thing to say that regular silence is important. It is another thing to offer ideas about ways to accrue more of it. But all of these thoughts go mute if we don’t address the elephant making all the noise in the room. The elephant rumbling through our homes and our lives and our communities is that silence is something that can arouse significant discomfort, and is not embraced by the masses even if intuitively, we all know it is something to behold.
Years ago, I was reading a book on the topic of poverty, and the discussion came up regarding the fact that in many impoverished homes, the television never goes off (these days, it isn’t just the television). The author commented that for many people living in difficult circumstances, silence was the one thing that people feared the most. Whether it was the sense of being alone or the feeling that something bad was about to happen, or conflict (of a verbal or physical nature) was actually occurring, the television provided one way to muffle the painful realities at hand.
For all those who identify with this, I understand why my prescription for silence may be met with a cold shutter. Furthermore, for those who struggle with various psychological issues (whether stemming from difficult circumstances and/or intrinsic issues), silence often evokes a reality that screams for much clatter. No matter how much I learn, I realize that I will never understand what many people feel when the volume goes to nil.
Many people also seem bored with silence. Being quiet seemingly belies having a good time, and quite a few people rarely go without their ear buds in or some screen distraction. As we are finding out, the ding or buzz of mobile devices actually evokes a neurotransmitter response. Neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, are chemicals in the brain that are largely responsible for the pleasures and pains that we feel. Studies have indicated that when a person hears a text come in, the brain experiences it very much like it does with any other pleasurable experience, such as a good drink, sweet food, or a gamble gone right. Just like these events, the dings and distractions themselves can be addictive.
Foregoing the addictive danger itself, what has happened with the advent of mobile devices of all kinds is that silence is no longer necessary. Any downtime can instantly be made into entertainment time, and what we are finding is that the value of silence is giving way to the instant gratification of noise for people young and old, rich and poor, and black and white. Simply put, the moment that we discovered we didn’t have to walk or sit in silence (or in direct conversation) was the moment that silence started losing the war.
But something else happened, too, and it takes us back to the fear component. It isn’t that we are just bored, and that texting and the like fill the time. It is that in our boredom, we (and especially the younger generation) start to fear that we are missing out on all the fun. Or even worse, we might be missing out on the gossip, which might turn out to be about you. The only way to battle the gossip is to know the gossip, right? And so many never leave their devices alone, and the devices don’t leave them alone either. Even when the phone is on vibrate, even when it is “silenced”, it remains on your mind, tempting you to check it oh so quickly before you “silence” it again. This falls short of the intracranial silence of which I speak. A mind in queue is much more like it.
So here is where circumstances get difficult. I firmly believe that silence is a mechanism and a messenger. The messages we receive, and the changes that mysteriously occur, are almost as mystical as the dreams that float around at night. Yet just because we don’t understand or value it doesn’t mean it isn’t so important. As Thomas Merton once again said,
“When we have really met and known the world in silence, words do not separate us from the world nor from other men, nor from God, nor from ourselves because we no longer trust entirely in language to contain reality.”
As a psychologist, as a father, as a spouse, and as a man, I believe this statement couldn’t be truer. The TV might mask outer or inner turmoil. But it will not change it. The mobile device might help avoid an awkward or boring moment. But it will not alter it. The reason silence is so difficult for so many is that, in adapting C.S. Lewis, it often feels “like a megaphone in a deaf world.” The messages we hear in silence are often so penetrating and so raw and so scary because they are so true. And so often in truthfulness, the message is simple even if the execution seems really hard: “It is time to make a change.” Sometimes, a bold, courageous one.
I understand that I will never grasp just why some people fear silence as they do. But this doesn’t change the fact that we all need to heed its call. If we keep masking it, chances are the noise will only get louder and more distracting, and our lives will become more disconnected and disenchanted. But if we listen intently to the sound of silence, new pathways and new answers will arise.