On Silence

In high school if we thought someone was talking nonsense we’d say, “Silence is golden, so shut up and get rich.”  If only I knew then just how valuable silence was.  This thought occurred to me this morning at school.  Do you have any idea how noisy a school gets?  Even if everyone is working, there’s always noise – the sound of the teacher next door teaching, the noise of learners changing classes, and don’t even get me started on breaks;  the staff room, supposedly a refuge against the noise, is just as noisy as outside, sometimes more.

At college I could not get enough of silence.  I studied at a small college in a small town nestled in the mountains, and silence was abundant.  It was the easiest thing to find a quiet place and simply revel in the silence.  I would spend hours a day simply listening to the sounds silence makes.  I was content on the inside as well, in tune with myself and certain of my place in creation.  I was creative, my mind was sharp, I dreamed big and every dream was possible.

Somewhere along the way I seem to have lost that.  Life has become so full of noise.  There is nowhere I can go if I just want to be still.  Even lying in bed at night I hear only noise – the whirring of the ceiling fan, the hum of the refrigerator, the noise of a truck passing in the street outside, all artificial, oppressing noise.  I can’t remember when last I was able to just experience silence.  It seems I’m too busy to sit and enjoy it in any case, even in the rare moments that actually come along from time to time.

When I do manage to get a moment of silence, the inner noise starts up.  It’s like Henri Nouwen writes in his book, With Open Hands, “It seems that a person who is caught up in all that noise has lost touch with the inner self.  The questions which are asked from within remain unanswered.  Unsure feelings are not cleared up, tangled desires are not straightened out, and confusing emotions are not understood.  All that remains is a chaotic tumble of feelings which have never had a chance to be sorted out.”  In fact, this has gotten so bad that I’m actually starting to avoid silence, as desperate as I am to experience it.  The inner noise gets so loud that I start producing outside noise to try and drown it out, because I simply can’t handle it.  I pick up a book to distract my mind, or put on a movie or a CD, just so I don’t have to face the inside noise.  Sometimes that noise gets so bad that even outside noises can’t drown them out.  Then I start pacing up and down until my thoughts settle, still not dealt with, to wait for next time.

Writing about them helps, getting the thoughts out of my head, but it’s not enough.  I need a period of prolonged silence in my life, with nothing demanding my attention.  Does such a thing even exist in our modern world?  What about responsibility?  What about all the valid demands that I cannot with good conscience ignore for the sake of silence?  I have reached a point where little bits of silence won’t cut it, even if I could have them, but is there another option?

It’s no wonder the world is in such a mess if no one ever spends any time in silence any more.  We can speak of the environmental and socio-economic toll of our modern lifestyles, but what about the personal toll?  I read recently that there is more mental illness today than at any previous point in history and most of it is stress-related.  I think the main reason for this is that our world is no longer silence-friendly.  If you’re not busy you’re not productive, and the few people who are lucky enough to have a quiet spot somewhere charge others a premium to have access to their silence.  We never get to sort ourselves out because we are never quiet for long enough.

We need to stop.  I need to stop.  Silence is golden, and I desperately need some of it in my life, before I lose it completely.