Silence is disappearing. It’s disappearing because we’re being trained to hate it.
Accustomed as most of us are to constant motion and busyness, many of us structure our days to avoid silence at all costs. For one, it’s awkward. When the door of an elevator shuts on a group of strangers, the compulsion to fill the space with sound is nearly palpable. Silence is “dead air,” to borrow a term from the radio business for any gap in sound lasting longer than a second. Only today, it’s not just audible noises – the beeps and vibrations of our various personal devices – that break silence. Far more consequential is the onslaught of images and words with which they daily violate the interior silence of our souls.
This rarely bothers most people, since silence, as well as being uncomfortable, can be fearsome. Leaving us alone with our thoughts, it forces us to address matters we often sidestep in our active outer lives. “Frightening,” “lonely,” “depressing” – these are just a few of the descriptors I come across when grading the essays of my students after asking them to fast from electronic media for twenty-four hours. The titles of their essays are telling: “My Day from Hell,” or “Death – take me now!”
Over twelve years of assigning this exercise, I’ve noticed students have found it increasingly difficult to successfully stick out the digital fast. For many, severing the link to their main conduit of information causes something near emotional pain. Yet those who persevere through the initial feelings of loss often report an unexpected breakthrough. Some say they attain moments of great clarity and awareness; others find themselves gaining an almost ecstatic creativity. It’s not uncommon for students to feel the urge to pray.
All the same, few if any of my students feel urged to make digital fasting a regular part of life. I suspect this has to do with the third and most powerful reason we avoid silence: it presents us with the stark realization of our own frailty, failure, and eventual death. Loosed from the concerns of the workaday world, we can feel purposeless and adrift, aware of the short span of human consciousness we call life. For those who are older, silence may push the lost dreams of youth to the forefront of the imagination. We live, we die; the cycle continues. Who wants to be confronted with the harshness of that reality?
Yet this is a medicine we need. Silence does the deep work that speech cannot accomplish. Through its discipline, we come to better understand our own thoughts and motivations. We find ourselves relating more cohesively to our world and to others. We can gain a stronger grasp of what it means to be human.
That’s why it matters that silence is endangered. This state of affairs hasn’t come upon us all at once – even before the Industrial Revolution, technologies such as print were transforming and increasing the flow of information, with profound effects on the interior lives of human beings. Yet the revolution in digital media has made the loss of silence not just one reason for concern among many, but an acute threat – and indeed, an accomplished fact for most humans alive today.
The huge increase in information flooding our brains makes dramatic new demands on their capacity for mental processing, which in turn may help explain why stress and related anxiety disorders are on the rise.1 “Information/ action imbalance” is what the educator Neil Postman called this growing phenomenon in a book written in 1985, years before the internet was widely available.2 Postman hypothesized that the ratio between information received and a person’s ability to act on that information creates psychological stress.
Silence does the deep work that speech cannot accomplish.
Postman, in turn, built on the work of Jacques Ellul, a French philosopher and historian writing two decades earlier. Already then, Ellul foresaw the implications of big data for the interior life: “Like a fish’s perfect adaptation to its water environment, we are enveloped in data, absorbed into a mono-dimensional world of stereotypes and slogans, and integrated into a homogenous whole by the machinery of conformity.”
Today this “machinery of conformity” permeates every niche of our culture. Nearly five billion people use mobile phones,3 and computerization affects virtually all areas of human life, from media and medicine to retail and relationships. From an economic point of view, of course, the deluge of largely unnecessary information is a boon; entire new industries have sprung up to capture, save, mine, and sell data on the information we consume. Yet, especially since the widespread adoption of social media, the human brain’s remarkable filtering ability is showing signs of being overtaxed.
Simply put, the problem is internal noise. Noise is as different from speech as weeds are from flowers; if not brought under control, it can take over a whole landscape. Unceasing internal noise replaces the reflective space one needs to think, ponder, wonder, and pray. In his 2014 book The End of Absence, journalist Michael Harris chronicles what he terms “the end of empty space.” He addresses the growing absence of silence and wonders if the next generation will find it more difficult to access solitude. “Will ‘deep’ conversation and solitary walks be replaced by an impoverished experience of text clouds?” he asks. “Will the soft certainty of earlier childhood be replaced by the restless idleness that now encroaches?”4
Digital devices corrode the ability to communicate face to face.
These are urgent questions if we’re serious about preserving those elements of our humanness that make us distinct from machines. A regular measure of silence gives us a refreshed inner terrain. It affords us the opportunity to focus, not on our internal distractions, but on other people with whom we are in relationship. It helps us better use words and actions to communicate meaning. It allows intimacy.
Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor researching in the field of technology and social science, argues that digital devices, far from connecting us with others, actually corrode the ability to communicate face to face. Turkle’s 2015 book, Reclaiming Conversation, points to a decreasing ability to carry on complex conversations. In her view, the first step toward reclaiming the art of conversation is to regain the solitude that we have let ebb away from daily life: “Without solitude we can’t construct a stable sense of self. Yet children who grow up digital have always had something external to respond to. When they go online, their minds are not wandering, but rather are captured and divided.”5
Essential to both conversation and to intimacy is the sound of the human voice. After all, a human being is not a brain in a vat; we are people with a mind and soul in a body, and that body speaks – uniquely, audibly, and replete with meaning. The presence of the word has a significance that goes beyond the mere functional need to convey a message, as the linguist Walter J. Ong recognized:
The word itself is both interior and exterior: it is, as we have seen, a partial exteriorization of an interior seeking another interior. The primary physical medium of the word – sound – is itself an exteriorization of a physical interior, setting up reverberations in other physical interiors.6
Thus, when two people sit down to speak with each other, they naturally tend to enter into relationship with one another. When we cease to use our gift of speech as our primary way of knowing – deferring to more remote systems of mediating reality such as writing, texting, or seeing – we place another layer between our external and internal knowing.
Superficial relationships are those that stay on the periphery of each individual; the intimate ones are born from a desire to mine the riches of another’s soul. Our ability to know another person is directly related to our ability to be with that person – within earshot – communicating via the spoken word rather than through the mere exchange of text on a page or a screen. The reality of this interiority comes sharply into view when we experience loneliness. Loneliness is born out of emotional distance from others and is one of the leading complaints from those struggling with depression.7 The erosion of intimacy and emotional distance are often cited as key contributors in divorce court.
“It is one’s voice that bespeaks presence.”8 Though the voice can admittedly also be heard through the telephone or a call app, these mediating devices drape a cloak of unknowing over conversation. The word spoken in the physical presence of another creates an opportunity to go beyond the substance of a message and enter the realm of mystery. Ellul explains:
We are in the presence of an infinitely and unexpectedly rich tool, so that the tiniest phrase unleashes an entire polyphonic gamut of meaning. The ambiguity of language, even its ambivalence and its contradiction, between the moment it is spoken and the moment it is received, produces extremely intense activities. Without such activities, we would be ants or bees, and our drama and tragedy would quickly be dried up and empty. Between the moment of speech and the moment of reception are born symbol, metaphor, and analogy.9
Before electronic media, print, or writing, there was speech. From the cry of a newborn to the last words of one dying, there exists a link between being and speaking. Speech is the initial and primary means by which our thoughts and perceptions are mediated; the vocal mechanism creates an echo of the self reaching out to another person. This reverberating effect is what makes rich relationships possible.
We are in the presence of an infinitely and unexpectedly rich tool.
The discipline of the well-spoken word depends, in turn, on silence. When it is absent from our daily lives, the power of our words is reduced and we are left with the scraps of language – acronyms, emojis, and downsized meaning. It’s unsurprising, then, that the information age has renewed interest in the art of mindfulness. Scores of recent articles, for example, discuss the scientific rationale for meditation. The practice of silence for spiritual strength and mental clarity is of course hardly a novel discovery, but anchored in thousands of years of history.
Silence is a necessary counter to the relentless preoccupation of our multitasking minds – something that should provide a contrapuntal rhythm to the steady beat of our busy human brains. Just as we are wise to protect the earth’s vulnerable woodlands from overdevelopment, so we must protect the sanctuary of our interior lives. Speech, relationships, the soul: they begin with, and are sustained by, silence.
Photographs by Torkel Pettersson and Rupert Kittinger-Sereinig/ Pixabay
- Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Viking Penguin, 1985).
- Simon Kemp, “We are Social,” Global Overview, Special Reports, January 24, 2017. wearesocial.com
- Michael Harris, The End of Absence (Penguin, 2015), 39.
- Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation (Penguin, 2015), 61.
- Walter J. Ong, The Presence of the Word (University of Minnesota Press, 1967).
- Steve Horsmon, “A Research-Based Approach to Strengthening Relationships,” March 6, 2017, The Gottman Institute. gottman.com
- Frank E. X. Dance, “Digitality’s Debt to Speech,” in Explorations in Media Ecology, vol. 7, no. 1, ed. Corey Anton (2002), 38.
- Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word, trans. J. M. Hanks (Eerdmans, 1985), 19.