We have a friend – an attractive, intelligent, caring, fun person. But she has one ‘fault’ I find irritating – and I’m not alone, I’ve seen other raised eyebrows – she cannot cope with silence. The slightest gap in a conversation has to be filled – not necessarily meaningfully, just filled.
What is it about silence that many people seem to find threatening? Do they feel lonely? Unwanted? Detached from the world? Are they afraid of being invaded by their own uncontrollable thoughts? Are they fearful of other people’s silence – what are ‘they’ thinking?
It is true that the world generally is becoming increasingly noisy. Research carried out at Sheffield Hallam University revealed that the noise level in Sheffield city centre had doubled between 1991 and 2001. Advances in technology have exacerbated the problem. In 2010 there were 130 working mobiles for every 100 people in the UK. It is virtually impossible to escape Muzac in shops, shopping malls, hotels and restaurants. Whether in the town or a country lane we are bombarded by the loud, throbbing bass emanating from a passing car.
Even in supposedly quiet places, silence is broken by the intrusive text message alert and one-sided mobile phone conversations. The stifled jangles of pop music escape from MP3 earpieces. The noise threshhold has risen insidiously.
Of course, there are orchestrated public periods of silence from time to time – notably on Remembrance Sunday and at sporting events as a mark of respect for some famous sports personality who has died. The silence of such large gatherings is often dramatic and moving and one marvels at the unified self-discipline and control of so many people. But silence is never a vacuum and it would be interesting to be privy to the thoughts and feelings of the individuals within the mass.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, during the first industrial revolution, the poet Wordsworth wrote:
‘The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.’
His words are just as apt for the beginning of the twenty-first century. We would do well to identify an oasis of silence in our daily routines; a brief period when we can be alone with ourselves.
Let us try an experiment. For just one minute, close your eyes so that you are relying only on what you hear. Sit perfectly still and remain totally silent. Try to remember any sound you hear – however quiet or however loud the sound may be – but remain perfectly still with your eyes closed. When the minute is up, open your eyes and try to recall all the different sounds you heard. Decide their source of origin – natural, manufactured, caused by people etc.
Repeat the experiment but this time recall the thoughts that passed through your mind during the silence.
There, now! That wasn’t at all frightening, was it? And maybe you enjoyed an experience you don’t regularly find time for.
See also The quiet moment