Paul Andersen: The vanishing wisdom of silence
Jets rumbled and roared overhead. One passed about every minute. I was aware of the air traffic because of the contrast with the deep silence that pervaded the desert canyon where I sat perched on a jut of rimrock.
Sitting quietly, alone, is an unusual pastime today when culture commands that we must be doing something with someone. Check your phone. Post on Facebook. Schedule a meeting. Answer an email. Prepare to die.
Preparing to die is the furthest thing from minds that are overbooked by the immediate and infinite demands of industrial life. Preparing to die requires a lifetime, but most hold it off until the bitter end when they fearfully struggle against mortality and resist the mystery that lies beyond.
Silence must be part of that preparation because it is the grounding for reflection, introspection and meditation — a connection with self. Silence helps us plumb the depths of truths that emanate from deep internal sources.
Silence is undervalued today because we live in a world where the externalities of commerce and culture are incredibly demanding. We obey the dictates of institutions instead of from the “still small voice,” which was described by the prophet Elijah as the essence of God.
Elijah may have sensed the solitary realization of conscience, or the echo of the Big Bang, or the thumping of his heart as metronome to the first and last rhythm we sense as the measure and beat of life, which is the rhythmic foundation of music.
Try to find silence today if you live in a city and you must either use sound muffs or close yourself up in a padded room. Others choose to lose themselves in the remote and distant wilderness, in places where human noise has yet to intrude on the overworked senses.
Desert hikers exalt about the profound silence of canyons, but with national flight paths over-arching most of the Southwest, these silences are harder and harder to find. It’s the same in the mountains, where countless jets trace the deep blue of the western sky with contrails and the resounding thunder of their engines.
In 1939, there were only 347 commercial aircraft in service globally. By 1960, that number had grown to 1,848. Today, there are 39,000 aircraft navigating the world’s skyways, serving almost 3 billion passengers. Of that, nearly a billion passengers are U.S. travelers to whom air travel is as matter-of-fact as getting on a bus.
“Standing there alone,” writes Boundary Waters naturalist Sigurd Olson in his essay “Silence,” “I felt alive, more aware and receptive than ever before. This was a time for silence, for being in pace with ancient rhythms and timelessness, the breathing of the lake, the slow growth of living things. Here the cosmos could be felt and the true meaning of attunement.”
How foreign is this experience when earbuds are standard equipment, when cellphones are pressed against ears, when the droning static of technological media blots out the silence as if it were a pestilence, a curse.
If people had more quiet time, their ambient anxiety and stress might melt away. The strains of life could be lessened and managed. Instead, most of us are geared to a compelling fascination with the external at the expense of the internal.
From where does truth come? Spirituality? Truth and spirit are translated into externalities, but they stem from internal awakenings. We escape those internal prods by bombarding ourselves with commercial and cultural externalities that distract us from the deeper need for introspection.
“More and more,” writes Olson, “we realize that quiet is important to our happiness. In our cities the constant beat of strange and foreign wave lengths on our primal senses beats us into neuroticism, changes us from creatures who once knew the silences to fretful, uncertain beings immersed in a cacophony of noise, which destroys sanity and equilibrium.”
Maybe it’s just me … and Sigurd … and a scant minority who resonate with silence because we have sensitized ourselves to the quiet calm of nature. We hear the roar of the jets and rue the tumult of a rapidly urbanizing world that’s noisily spinning into chaos.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at email@example.com.