The Day the Silence Died

“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. But when men are violently deprived of the solitude and freedom which are their due, then society in which they live becomes putrid, it festers with servility, resentment and hate.” — Thomas Merton

It is 12:30 AM. Shots of a semi-automatic rifle ring through the air.  Flashes of light cascade an otherwise dark room.  Vibrations course through the controller as gunfire continues amid the sounds of a landing helicopter.  John’s pregnant girlfriend and two year-old daughter have been asleep for some time.  It had been another long day at his job.  John’s boss is a jerk, and most of the people he works with are annoying.  Some days, it is just this time spent alone at night that gets him through it all, even though he knows he probably should be sleeping.  But the game takes him to another place, full of beautiful, textured graphics and adventurous missions that contradict his rather mundane life.  Online with his fellow gamers, he laughs as expletives ring out when an explosion lands nearby.  Just slightly younger than the average gamer (34), at times he feels like he is leading a dual life.  What began as a fun outlet as a teen has become part of a growing trend of young men such as John who find themselves pulled deeper into the virtual world.  Recently, he ventured into Second Life, and has begun to correspond with another “female” whom he is curious to know more about.

John unknowingly found himself in the throngs of “adultescence” in his 20’s. He grew up in a middle class family in the suburbs, but after graduating college with a degree in anthropology, he was uncertain of what to do next.  For a few years, he moved back in with his parents, and began working part-time at a nearby music exchange outlet.  He pursued a few other jobs, but they seemed unappealing.  Eventually, he landed an entry position at a local bank.  He broke up with his girlfriend of a few years, and other relationships came and went.  He found himself slipping more into online pornography, which like many of his male friends became a way to relieve stress and “take the edge off.”  He found himself more withdrawn, more emotionally detached, jumping from one adrenaline surge to the next, until he eventually began dating someone that he met online.  Unexpectedly, she became pregnant quickly and they decided to move in together, only for the second baby soon to be on its way.  Sitting there this night, staring at the screen, he finds himself wondering how he has gotten here, and just where it will lead.  Along the way, he has become part of a growing contingent of young, middle class males struggling to take on the demands of adult life.

“If our life is poured out in useless words, we will never hear anything, never become anything, and in the end, because we have said everything before we had anything to say, we shall be left speechless at the moment of our greatest decision.” — Thomas Merton

He is rocking forward rhythmically, seemingly oblivious to all that is around as the bus comes to a stop. Seated next to me, I can hear the music emanating from his ear buds, sounds of outrage comingled with admissions of lust.  His eyes open briefly, but just as quickly his head turns downward as he retreats back to his song.  Suddenly, his trance is broken by the sound of his cell ringing in his pocket.  He says a few brief words, then looks up to see his stop is approaching.  I watch him exit, and as he walks down the sidewalk, his head remains downward as the bus rolls by.  Little do I know, but he is headed home, where the television never goes off.  From an early age, it was a way of drowning out the noise of poverty, of the screams, of the gunfire, and of his grandmother yelling at him as he headed out the door.

As he grew older, music became his release. He craved rhythm where life seemed to have none.  He rarely was without his i-Pod, and the musicians became his guide.  Silence scared him, as if something was about to “go down.”  So he avoided it, and he and his friends joined the fury he felt about all the ways they had been wronged.  During class, his teachers generally turned a blind eye as long as the music remained just discernible to him.  His mobility only improved after he got his first i-Phone, and his friends texted and surfed throughout the day to pass the time.  Unknowingly, he became part of the trend of minority youth who spend almost thirteen hours a day “linked in” to some form of media or technology, almost four and half hours more than their white counterparts.

“Words stand between silence and silence: between the silence of things and the silence of our own being. Between the silence of the world and the silence of God. 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” — Thomas Merton

We walked through the valley of the shadow of life.

The previous day had been one of ups and downs—not of a personal nature—but of a mountainous one. After taking off on the trail the prior evening, we had started out early in the morning as the shadows slowly ebbed to the east over the Chisos Mountains on our way to the highest point, Emory Peak.  As the night settled in, childish conversations reminiscent of decades past, of wrestling javelinas and taming mountain lions, interspersed with tales of professional pursuits and worldly concerns.

But this morning, as we slowly made our way into Juniper Valley, the sun was unveiling its rugged masterpiece onto the lowly, vast expanse that lay before us. Prickly pear cactuses and welcoming aloe plants covered the land as our simple minds contemplated the enormous beauty, and desolation, below.  As we snaked our way down the mountain, a small tent appeared on the canyon floor where two travelers had hunkered down for the night.  We would not see another human being that day.

It had been almost ten years since my two brothers and I had our last great wilderness adventure. Although we had seen much of the of the beautiful landscape that this country had to offer, in duo or with other company, our trio had not come together for much time until we found our way into the confines of Big Bend National Park.  As the desert sun intensified, and the harsh, unforgiving land showed its true, often brilliant colors, the climbs and the miles became more difficult.  Like many of my past adventures, it was during these moments that I sometimes wondered why we had not taken an easier road, one in which the toil and sweat was replaced with comfort and leisure.  As the blisters began to form, and the heat of the day colluded with our entomological foes to even make a day-ending siesta a chore, the weakness in me felt tempted by a more forgiving course.

But I knew by now that I had come, and we had come, for a much different purpose. On the surface, it had been one of adventure and one of beauty, and for that it had not disappointed.  But in a greater sense, we came for solitude and silence, in ourselves and with each other.  We had come in search of the same tranquility that we desired and needed every day—whether in brief moments of interlude or amid the morning rise or the setting sol.  We had come to the faraway land of Big Bend to remind ourselves of the joy that this solitude beheld so that when life resumed (as it soon would), we would seek to preserve and nurture it in our everyday lives.  It was that same silence of understanding that we would pursue between ourselves.  For although at times our conversations spoke of trail curiosities, and at times of our personal lives, much of the time our discussions were born out of the quietness of our footsteps on the rocky, parched soil and the birds swooshing by.  We had travelled across the country to immerse ourselves in the comfort that came with saying nothing at all.

As we awoke to the slight morning chill, a renewed vigor found its way into my soul. Trekking our way back to the abandoned ranch in completion of our thirty-four mile loop, I once again found myself grateful for the things that only harsh deserts and long brotherly backpacking trips seemed particularly acute at reminding.  Like the joy of cold water and rested toes.  Later that day, as we waded through the Rio Grande with the Santa Elena canyon walls soaring 1,500 feet above, it seemed so clear.  I just wanted to be one with Him, one with her, one with them, and one with myself in wherever the path would lead next—in the silence of my soul.

Further Suggested Readings

Guyland by Michael Kimmel The Demise of Guys:  Why Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It by Philip Zimbardo & Nikita Duncan “Children, Media, and Race: Media Use Among White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian American Children,” presented by Center on Media and Human Development, School of Communication, Northwestern University. ( “Linked In:  Assessing Youth’s Consumption of Technology” ( January 2013 “What Autism Teaches About Relationships—What Technology Does Not” ( September 2013

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