Shut Up and Listen!

One Man's Quest for Absolute Silence

I Am Not a Luddite

Instead of seeking silence, we need to find a balance between quiet and noise

A Luddite "destroyer of technology"
Wikipedia Commons
A few, a very few readers of Zero Decibels, the book I wrote about "the quest for absolute silence," have tarred me (to paraphrase Monty Python) with the epithet "Luddite."

I am not a Luddite

I love and value silence, but when I went on that quest to find it, I could not find absolute silence. Because it does not exist.

It's useless to pine for an ideal silent world that never existed, the way modern Luddites (usually living in expensively insulated environments) wax nostalgic for simpler times.

Sound is the carrier beam of life. When we create, we make sound, even if it's only the scratching of pen on paper, or the tapping of fingers on a laptop keyboard. Our bodies make sounds: swoosh of blood, beat of heart, gurgle of gut; even if the ambient environment does not. Our very hearing apparatus keens softly in standby mode, like a stereo system humming with electricity before the MP3 playlist kicks in.

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The only time we'll "hear" perfect silence is when we're dead.

So we need to redefine our idea of silence. A more useful notion than "absence of sound" would be "a balance between attainable silence and controllable sound that allows for optimum life function."

To my mind, optimum life function means the ability to listen to and look at the world around us, and think about it as long as we need to, and make decisions based on that reflection. This is true of any honest endeavor, from replacing a head gasket to writing a novel to running a productive business.

In this society, however, we live in an environment in which the sound/silence balance is viciously skewed toward the noise end of the spectrum, and this prevents us from listening and looking around us.

Worse, through stress, and associated economic, psychological and cultural pressures, our society largely deprives us of the ability to dial that balance back toward a saner setting. Smartphones, Skype conferences, Gmail ads, TV blather not only dominate our lives--they make us forget we have alternatives.

There is nothing wrong with loud music, or ads, or even department store music, in their place. Nothing wrong with MP3 players, as long as they are not set so loud as to destroy our hearing.

What is important, however, is to know how and when to turn them down, or switch them off. What's important is to realize that we need quiet in order to listen properly to ourselves, our environment, our friends and family and inner thoughts.

In a season when we are assaulted, more than at any other time of year, by the hubbub of marketing and the cynically amplified jingles of institutional charity; in a season when we are also (despite the best interests of online commerce) allowed days off to enjoy our lives as members of family and whatever is left of our community; it's important to remember to take time to enjoy the quiet pleasures of family conversation, and the silence of the house between Santa's departure and the stampede of waking children.

Happy holidays.

 

George Michelsen Foy, a novelist and journalist, teaches creative writing at NYU. His latest book, Zero Decibels: The Quest for Silence, is published by Scribner.

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