Monday, July 18, 2011

In Pursuit of Silence

We live in a noisy world. Almost by definition, "modern" living is synonymous with having a personal noise machine (cell phone, iPod, etc.) pressed into our ears. Houses that used to have one TV in the living room now have three or four (or more!) so that the blathering can be heard from every room.

I seem to be a kindred spirit with George Prochnik, author of In Pursuit of Silence. As I write this blog post, by most people's accounting my house is silent. But it's not really silent. I hear the air conditioner turning off and on, the occasional plane overhead, the refrigerator motor, my PC fan, the gas pilot light in the fireplace, the traffic two streets over, the crickets in the yard, and the timer ticking on the side table lamp. I hear all of these sounds because of its silence.

This observation cuts to the point of Prochnik's book. We have become so accustomed to noise that we hear very little. Searching for silence doesn't mean you want to hear less. It means you want to hear more!

As a society, we seem to fear silence, and the ensuing stillness that forces an inward look at ourselves and our thoughts. The book didn't explore this philosophical point as much as I'd hoped. Instead, it was more focused on the history of noise, the science of it, and how people react to it.

All of this was interesting, and not surprisingly, little gems of wisdom emerged. For example, if you're having trouble in your home life, turn off the noise and the stress will fade!

However, it would have been an even more enticing book if there had been more exploration into the "why" of our noisy existence. Despite not delving deeply into the philosophy, Prochnik does provide an excellent quote from Soren Kierkegaard from The Lily in the Field and the Bird of the Air.
"How solemn it is out there under God's heaven with the lily and the bird, and why? Ask the poet. He answers: Because there is silence. And his longing goes out to that solemn silence, away from the worldliness in the human world, where there is so much talking, away from all the worldly human life that only in a sad way demonstrates that speech distinguishes human beings above the animals. 'Because,' says the poet, 'if this is the distinguishing characteristic--no, then I much, much prefer the silence out there.'"