I search for and examine silence.
I guess one wants what one does not have. I’ve been working on this blog post for some time with may false starts as I try to work out some profound statements that are worth sharing. Perhaps there is a little irony there.
I am a middle school English teacher and the father of a child with Aspergers Syndrome. If you have unfamiliar with children with Aspergers, they talk a lot…to you, to themselves, often to anyone who appears to be listening. So, I don’t get much quiet. My thoughts alone provide enough noise for me to navigate; by the end of most days, I am exhausted, seeking only the refuge of silence.
In his brilliant essay, The Eloquent Sounds of Silence, published in 2001, Pico Iyer discards the cliches and tired metaphors in order to tell us that we must work for silence and make it part of our daily existence. Silence is not simply given. It is not something to find. It must be created.
Iyer warns his reader about searching for the type of silence that is fool’s gold-a mountain top, a retreat, an escape. We may come back refreshed from these getaways but we then find ourselves frazzled and exasperated as soon as we have to return to the clamor of the world. When we go to these places of silence, we recite the standard litany of comparisons. “Silence is golden, company is brass” and all that.
He tells us that silence must be earned. Work must be done to build stillness into our lives. To create a presence, not an absence. To make silence not an escape but an enchanted place where one can think and where one can create. And, truly, this is remarkably difficult. Finding a public silence is perhaps the easiest. It is fairly simple to turn the cellphone off (something I try to do more and more), shop online, walk late in the evening when all of the neighbors are safely ensconced in front of their televisions. Finding a private silence is more difficult. Turning off and turning away from the myriad distractions that prevent us from hearing ourselves and others think is much more of a challenge. How can we engage in meaningful dialogue when the pings of our tweets, feeds, and messages from those far away distract us from the very real soul attempting to connect to us in the here and now?
Iyer tells us that silence is only as good as what we can bring forth from it. Silence is not malevolent brooding-it is not isolation. It is the teacher allowed a quiet retreat from the clamor of the classroom to research, to read, to plan; without time to engage himself in inner dialogue, how can he be expected to help his students engage in reflection and thinking that helps them become better versions of themselves? How can an educator teach a child to think more critically when the educator herself has no time to do the same? It is the silence of the political leader who is comfortable within the citadel of his own thoughts; he who can bring forth from decades of incarcerated isolation reconciliation with those who imprisoned him. It is the religious thinker who can emerge from his contemplations of cancer and his own imminent death, to tell us how we all must exist joyously, together, within the Cathedral of the World.
Iyer goes on to examine the holiness and wholeness of silence. How, in silence, we go beyond hearing not only ourselves but perhaps something larger; behind the protective walls of silence, we are free to examine the stillness within ourselves. Here, we can see that the sacred is as much within us as without. Vows of silence can be seen as the highest devotional act. It is only in places of silence that we can stop and hear the voice of the divine. God has no place at the table of man’s idle chatter.
Our world has only gotten noisier since Iyer published his essay. In 2001, he ponders a future where more and more machines talk to us; a future where we can cocoon ourselves ourselves from public noise with the Walkman. In 2017, we live in a world that no longer demands any amount of silence. Indeed, we live in world where it seems that he who speaks the loudest and with the least amount of forethought is the one who is listened to, not ignored for being a buffoon. We live in a world where children can speak to a device called an Echo for information and for entertainment. Heedless of Bradbury’s warning, we are allowing the nursery to raise our children; unaware that we may find ourselves devoured by the lions of their imagination. Iyer’s exhortation that we work to build silence into our lives is ever more urgent and even more necessary.
Silence does take strength and a willingness to be still, and we appear to be weakening in our resolve to be silent and to listen. If we are constantly creating and consuming noise, then we are not listening to each other. The consequences of this lack of meaningful exchange surround us. We are a world that is returning to the dreaded “us versus them” mentality. Anyone with the vaguest knowledge of history knows the consequence of this thinking.
Iyer concludes with his thoughts on silence as the “ultimate province of trust.” With loved ones, we can be silent. Idle words are not needed-there is no embarrassment to mask with babble and idle gossip.
Perhaps if we begin with simply being quiet, if we simply allow silence a place at the table, there will be a little more peace on everyone’s plate.