One of the most lamentable aspects of modern life is the disappearance of silence. Throughout most of human history, silence has been a part of life. Many individuals lived a significant portion of their lives in silence, working in solitude and untroubled by the intrusion of constant noise.
Historians often point to the Industrial Revolution as a great turning point in the human experience of environmental sound and constant noise. The arrival of the factory and the concentration of human populations in cities brought a transformation that was accompanied by increased noise and the displaced silence. Today, the problem of noise pollution is a matter of concern to many of us, who find our lives frequently interrupted by unwanted sounds and constant noise.
Our culture now assumes noise and the constant availability of music, electronic chatter, and entertainment. In many homes, there is virtually no silence — at least during waking hours. In some homes, family members live in isolated environments of independent sound, with iPods, televisions, radios, and any number of other technologies providing a customized experience of noise.
All this takes a toll upon the soul. Psychologists argue that the development of individual identity requires extended periods of solitude, reflection, and silence. The Christian tradition has honored silence as a matter of spiritual discipline and an intentional effort to flee the noise of everyday life in order to hear what noise cannot supply.
If this is true for adults, it is perhaps even more true for children. But today’s children are often subjected to a constant barrage of noise. Many are raised to the soundtrack of the television or other forms of entertainment. Some parents seem to fear silence and do their best to make certain that children are never without some form of sound.
Writing in the June issue of Standpoint, Susan Hill argues that our children are being impoverished by being deprived of silence. We have betrayed children, she asserts, by “confiscating their silence.” As she explains:
But so difficult has it become to find such oases of silence, that many children never experience it. In adapting to constant noise, we seem to have become afraid of silence. Why? Are we afraid of what we will discover when we come face to face with ourselves there? Perhaps there will be nothing but a great void, nothing within us, and nothing outside of us either. Terrifying. Let’s drown our fears out with some noise, quickly.
Most of us will quickly realize the truth contained in her assessment. It seems that many of us are, to a greater or lesser degree, almost afraid of silence. Our children quickly inherit the same fear.
In “Silence, Please,” Susan Hill describes the delights of silence in a way that beautifully captures what so many have lost:
In a quiet library, the turning of a page, the scratch of pencil on paper, are separate, distinctive, sounds. They identify themselves to us, they have a personality. They are beautiful. It is not only natural sounds that gain a richness set in the context of silence — all sounds do. To deprive ourselves and our children of the ability to distinguish such aural detail is to diminish our sensory life.
As Susan Hill acknowledges, complete silence is very difficult to achieve. Her goal is not to see children experience an artificial silence, but instead to see children experience the natural sounds that come as gifts — sounds that require turning off the television to hear.
“Our children are too rarely given that opportunity or taught that the contrast between noise and quietness, like the parallel one between being in company and being alone, is vital to the growth and maturity of the individual,” she explains. This growth and maturity, cultivated by silence, is essential to education — both of the mind and the soul. Reading, writing, analysis, and reflection require some level of silence. Many children, particularly teenagers, are shortchanging their education by developing a dependence on noise, even when studying (or what they call studying).
The life of the mind and the shaping of the soul require the ability to hear, recognize, and understand what would be lost in a cacophony of sound. She expresses this beautifully:
If children do not learn to focus and concentrate in a pool of quietness, their minds become fragmented and their temperaments irritable, their ability to absorb knowledge and sift it, grade it and evaluate it do not develop fully. Reading a book quietly, watching a raindrop slide slowly down a windowpane or a ladybird crawl up a leaf, trying to hear the sound of a cat breathing when it is asleep, asking strange questions, such as, “Where do all the colors go at night?” and speculating about the possible answers — all of these are best done in silence where the imagination can flourish and the intricate minutiae of the world around us can be examined with the greatest concentration.
Where do all the colors go at night? All of us, what ever our age, need the gift of silence so that we can ponder such questions — and hear what constant noise denies us.