There I was, standing in front of the window in my bedroom, buttoning my shirt before work. The time was 6:45 a.m. I was vaguely aware of a steady stream of tinny babble emanating from the clock-radio but I couldn’t have told you if it was a commercial or talk or what.
What is it exactly about background noise? It’s everywhere anymore. On the ride into work the radio comes on automatically. At the office, co-workers need to have radios mumbling in the background while they work. Some even have headphones on, listening to CDs.
It’s particularly noticeable in young people. My son hits the radio button as soon as his butt lands on the seat in the car. And when you try to get them to listen to you, they always have one eye on the TV screen, vaguely aware that you are talking to them.
With the proliferation of electronic devices, noise and other sound has come to play an even larger role in our lives.
Our ancestors did not have to deal with this distraction. Before the invention of radio and phonographs, the only sounds humans heard were their own or their machines. In the middle ages, the only sounds in the average town came from humans and their horses.
The old-timers valued the silence in their lives. The loss of this entity promises to have a profound impact on our lives.
“Nothing has changed the nature of man so much as the loss of silence,” writes Max Picard in “Knowledge of Time.”
“The invention of printing techniques, compulsory education – nothing has changed man so much as this lack of relationship with silence; this fact that silence is no longer taken for granted, as something as natural as the sky above or the air we breathe. Man who has lost silence has not merely lost human quality, but his whole structure has been changed thereby.”
What makes silence so special? Some of the great writers have stated that it is only in silence that we can “hear ourselves think,” that we can find ourselves, or figure out who we really are and what we’re like inside. We spend so much time reacting external stimuli that we forget that the most important part of our world is ourselves. And too often we allow the external world to define who we are.
Christ knew something about silence. When forced to confront the demons inside of him, he wandered into the desert alone for 40 days. Notice he did not take disciples or distractions of any kind.
For 4,0000 years Buddhists have been telling us that the key to human understanding and enlightenment is meditation, and what is meditation but sitting in silence for long periods of time and listening to the sound inside of us – to our own breathing?
Today, our lives are overwhelmed by noise and clutter and we can no longer hear the voices and sounds inside.
Instead, the sounds we hear most often are the voices of others, mostly professional announcers or actors, telling us what to think and how to feel. If we allow ourselves to be defined by the world around us, we are passing up our best chance to learn who we really are.
Only silence promises to have the answer to that question.