Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence
–Simon and Garfunkel
Like most liberals, my political outlook is based on maximizing individual freedom up to point where it interferes with others, i.e. “My freedom ends where your nose begins.” A classic example is of such nose bumping is noise: loud music, power tools, over-revved motorbikes, screaming children and the couple next door who like their sex loud.
Like most introverts, I do not like noise. In fact, I’m convinced there is a relationship between the noise someone makes and their intelligence — an inverse relationship. The more noise, the lower the intellect. This is especially applicable to conversations. The ones with the least to say seem hell bent for leather on saying it in the loudest possible voice.
It used to be, a quiet person was considered to be thoughtful. Do you remember the phrase “Still waters run deep”? In today’s world it is too often taken as a warning of potential psychopathic tendencies. Susan Caine, in her book Quiet, reminds us of the day when introverts were honored and traces its demise in the rise of the loud extrovert as a positive role model.
Now that transformation is complete. Noise and rudeness rule the day. It is almost impossible for a polite person to take part in conversation in today’s world because there is never a civilized break. A key requirement to be a contemporary conversationalist is a loud voice and the ability to speak without drawing a breath. As I was reminded once, “It’s okay to hold a conversation, but you should let it go from time to time.”
I think people are afraid of silence. We are afraid of what we might hear if we didn’t flood our ears with babble. Too much silence and we might hear the voices in our heads, engage them in conversation and, God forbid, start to think. People will go to great lengths to avoid this.
A powerful negotiating tactic is to shut up. Let silence fill the room and the other party will rush in to fill the void, often giving up much in the process. There is no void, of course. Artists learn to draw by capturing the white space between the objects. And you learn to listen by immersing yourself in silence.
I listen to silence the way others listen to music. I consider myself a connoisseur of silence. Silence is more than an absence of something. It has a quality all its own. Consider the abrupt, awkward silence after an ill-timed outburst. The tinnitus murmur of a hotel room slowly darkening at sunset. The ‘Shush… Here and now’ reminder of my pre-dawn meditation. The two-in-the-morning silence that wraps around all pivotal moments of our lives.
Silence needn’t be a solo performance. Just as music can be improved with well-used pauses, silence can be enhanced when built around appropriate background noise (muted, of course). Think of the lazy sound of a distant lawn mower on a Sunday morning. The rhythmic click-clock of your grandmother’s mantle clock. The shushing of a gentle rain punctuated with the plop-plop of drops from the eaves. The post-midnight sibilance of pine trees in the wind. The mechanical pocketa-pocketa carried by a hot north Texas summer wind from any piece of equipment abandoned in a field of scrub grass and mesquite.
There is one Great Silence that will eventually come to all of us. We will have a long time to engage it in conversation. Doesn’t it make sense to practice for that day now?
Shut up and listen to the great orchestral silence of your day.