Saving Silence: Finding Quiet in a Chaotic World

Why do we fear silence?

Posted Nov 16, 2017

Anna Akbari
Source: Anna Akbari

Shhh. Can you hear that? Probably not. The sound of silence is something many of us don’t get to enjoy often enough.

From my current home on the Venice canals of Los Angeles, there is no traffic. Only eager tourists strolling by, snapping photos of the picturesque surroundings, and daily visits from hummingbirds and bluebirds.

Recent travels to less serene surroundings left me mentally parched.  But after one afternoon with the lapping water and the ducks, I could hear myself think again.

In an “On Being” episode, acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton declares silence an endangered species. He clarifies: real quiet is the presence, not an absence of sound or noise. He argues that sound, not sight, is so crucial to our survival that every higher vertebrate species has the ability to hear.

Quiet presence. When we are present, we soak in all of our surroundings. There’s no particular goal or endpoint, just the thing in itself. We can just be.

Hempton says, “When I speak of silence, I often use it synonymously with quiet. I mean silence from modern life...It’s also the experience of place, what it means to be in a place. A quiet place is the think tank of the soul.”

But we fear silence. Why? It forces us to be honest. To be alone with our own thoughts. It calls us out. To sit in silence with another person is to be naked.

And yet, it is in quiet that we are comforted. Secure. Capable of intimacy with ourselves and others.

I’ve previously written about the value of alone time and its underrated place in our hyper-connected culture. So, too, is the fate of quiet in a modern world. And as with solitude, we erroneously mistake quiet with boredom or loneliness.

We underestimate the richness of the type of quiet Hempton reveres. Vacations without wifi are now considered luxury. Researchers have shown that after spending quiet time in nature, we are more attentive, with more robust cognitive abilities and memories. This time away from the chaos calms and relaxes our brains. And we and everyone we touch benefits.  

When is the last time you worked uninterrupted for any duration of time?  When is the last time you enjoyed someone’s company with only the sounds of nature? When is the last time you were truly in just one place—and not on-call to the rest of the world?

Not only our own mental sanity and the strength of our ties depends on it, but also our ability to exhibit empathy and have deep thoughts. Finding quiet in chaos is crucial for survival.

Turn down the noise. Drink in the silence. Tell me what you hear.