We were talking about the value of silence over at El’s before she took her Lenten break from the blogging world, and how our current world is set up to deliver noise constantly.
Some of the noise comes from what we – or our audible neighbors – consider entertainment. Music, talk, television, movies, youtube – the sound fills whatever might be a silent moment.
Some of the noise comes from the modern world – the sound of cars is constant in my neighborhood. Trains, sirens, foghorns, the hum of electricity, the rumble of the dryer.
Some of the noise comes from the natural world – the cackling of my neighbor’s chickens, the sound of the wind in the trees, the sound of breakers on the beach, the crashing of thunder.
I am someone who values silence. I uncoil in the stillness of an empty house, a darkened bedroom, a winter beach. There are parts of myself that will not come out for the examining when the world is noisy and busy and full.
We sort noises into noises that we need to pay attention to, and noises that we don’t. I don’t need to pay attention to the sound of the rain. I might love to, but I don’t need to. Even though the sound of traffic on I-5 sounds very much like a roaring river, traffic noise is car noise, and car noise I need to pay attention to – well, at least I’ve trained myself to do so when I’m driving, and that extends to the hours when I am not.
Noises that start & stop take more of our attention than noises that are constant.
But yet – I find myself choosing noise more often than silence. Why?
I find myself erecting walls of noise-of-my-choice to protect my psyche from the assault of noise-not-of-my-choice. If there must be noise, let me choose my own input. Let me make for myself a safe place, a barrier. When I drive and the person next to me has their noise-machine cranked up, my own noise-machine gives me continuity. I can pretend that though we sit 10 feet away from one another, we are truly in separate countries, totally strangers to one another in our cells of steel and glass. Noise provides an illusion.
I choose outer noise when my inner self is discombobulated or wound up. I’m much more likely to turn the radio on on the way home from work than on the way to work! Somehow listening to external noise-of-choice helps me ignore the internal noise. Similarly, I’ll change the radio station to change my line of thought if I’m stuck in a mental place that I don’t like.
Why do I keep calling the radio “noise-of-choice” and not music? Well, because I’m not listening to it as music. I am neither participating as a singer, nor am I fully savoring it as an appreciator of art. It is pleasant companionship, not transformative. I am capable of appreciating good music, but good music makes poor walls. When I want to appreciate music (or any other kind of art), I want to have had time in silence, time to quiet myself so that I can bring my full attention to what is on offer. My pleasant companion can come along with me as I navigate busy streets without forcing me to choose where to place my attention – on a note that breaks the heart, or a nearby driver intent on breaking the law.
That’s one of the things that CS Lewis touched on in a few of his books. Silence, music, and the sounds of nature allow one to relax, expand, to take a breath, to see God’s handiwork and interact with it. In our modern world, will we or nil we, we are often prevented from that interaction.
I would like to sit and listen to the birds in the tree outside. I keep sending my attention to their song. But we are interrupted by the sound of cars passing. I find this wearying. It breaks my attention. It breaks my thoughts. It’s hard to enter into Deep Work when I’m constantly dragged back to step one.
I could go on – and might. But not today. For my thoughts are fractured by the noises. Since I cannot be at peace, I may well put on my headphones, and choose my own noise for a few minutes before I go to work and have it chosen for me.