Silence is golden
by Stephanie Piper
I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. Silence is vastly underrated.
We run from it, fear it, fill it with top 40 hits and CNN, compact discs, text messages, cell phone chatter and white noise. We choke over it in conversation, volunteering the smallest of small talk to cover its awkward presence. We giggle about it in libraries and quash it with covert notes in study hall. Those of us who work at computers add to the general din with a steady stream of electronic chat. New mail has arrived! Instant Message! Incoming words!
I’ve become a silence junkie. I plan for it, dream of it, make elaborate arrangements to secure it. I hoard it against the ringing phones, the blasting car radios, the cranked up stereos. It has become the drug I simply must have, in regular doses, to neutralize the input of an average day.
I sound anti-social. I’m not. I like to talk. I like to listen. I like Mozart and Van Morrison and a nightly hit of Larry King Live . I like my personal greatest hits CD, featuring “Wait a Minute, Mr. Postman” by the Shirelles and “Do the Locomotion” by Little Eva. My own scientific studies confirm that these two tunes, played very loudly in rapid succession in a closed car, pack the energy equivalent of a double espresso.
I also like to be completely quiet. Mornings are best for this, I have found. The quality of silence is deeper then, the world just stirring, the pitch still low. I sit wrapped in a worn plaid robe and listen to nothing.
The air conditioner hums. The coffeepot sputters. Outside, the doves exchange their haunting three-note greeting. The sounds lap at the edge of my consciousness, but they do not intrude. I’m already gone, lost in the stillness.
It cannot be rushed, this quiet time. There are no shortcuts. Deprived of my ration by early meetings or well-meaning company, I am jagged, scattered, for the rest of the day.
I need another fix at twilight, a few gulps of scented air, a noiseless ten minutes to turn off the voices in my head. Without it, the urgency hangs on, determined, long past dark.
I read recently that neonatologists have identified noise as a cause of stress in tiny babies. Poked and prodded, checked by beeping machines, hooked up to buzzing monitors, infants often fail to thrive. Now the experts have turned off the phones in nurseries, turned down the beepers, stilled the babbling intercoms. Nurses speak in whispers, move quietly, close cupboards gently.
An expert of another kind shared his research with me on my last trip to the monastery I visit every few years. He’s a 90-year-old Trappist monk whose regular visitors include an Elvis impersonator, two ambassadors, the occasional senator and a steady procession of writers. He holds court in a tiny chapel off the main abbey church, and his nightly talks are the manna in this particular wilderness.
The decline of faith in the world, he told us one evening, is in direct proportion to the decline of silence.
Silence, he believes, is the essential ingredient of spiritual growth. Like food and water and air, it nourishes and sustains us, wraps us in peace, softens the hard edges of life. It isn’t just the absence of noise. It’s the only sure route to the place Thomas Merton called “the country beyond words.” It is, quite simply, the language of the creator.