Tag Archive: silence


Modern society is terrified of silence.  We walk into the grocery store and carefully chosen music is playing over the speaker system.  In fact, while we are driving to said grocery store, we are likely to be listening to the radio or iPod.  We listen to music while we work, exercise, and drive.  When we come home, the television is on “for background noise”.  Now, none of these things are inherently bad; listening to something while I work out, for instance, at least triples the amount of time I can run without getting bored.  But when we are used to constant noise, day in and day out, it becomes part of our reality.  If the noise is taken away, we are unnerved and even scared.

This is not just true for noise; it also holds for other mindless distractions that take us away from the important aspects of our lives.  Take, for instance, this commercial for a Motorola phone:  

One could argue that I’m reading way too much into a simple commercial, I suppose, but these things have armies of marketers behind them whose job it is to study our habits, hobbies, activities, etc.  They have determined that telling potential customers that their product will help them work more efficiently in order to spend more time playing Angry Birds is a method that works and will get people to buy their product.  What bothers me about the commercial is not what it says, but what it assumes.  It assumes that our daily life consists of work and mindless activities (to take our mind off of work, but that’s a topic for another post).  When we are done with work and have, presumably, free time, we spend it on mindless activities.  We watch TV; we play video games; we browse Facebook for two hours.

If you are at home reading this, try a little experiment.  Close your music player.  Close all your browser windows/tabs (except this one!).  If you can, turn off the air conditioning or fans for a minute.  The goal here is to make your environment as quiet and distraction-free as possible.  Wait for one minute – yes you can stop reading now – and come back when your minute is up.  Now that all distractions are gone, how are you feeling?  Anxious?  Worried?  If so, you might be relying on those distractions without realizing it.

I should point out here that I live by myself and don’t have cable.  There is a LOT of quiet time in my apartment, so it doesn’t cause me anxiety any more.  But when I lived with people, I always wanted them around.  Being alone in a quiet room, even if it was only a dorm room, was a little bit unnerving to me.  Now that I have a bit more control over my environment, I find that I am more able to deal with quiet and distraction/free environments when my life is generally going well.  If I’m stressed out and/or anxious about anything, my ability to tolerate silence becomes almost zero.  Those are usually the times when you can find me playing random Flash games online.  It comes down to this: when it’s quiet, I am alone with my thoughts.  Sometimes I don’t like what I find there, so I try to block it out by distracting myself.

So if you tried my experiment and found yourself becoming more anxious without the constant noise and distractions of daily life, ask yourself why.  Are you trying to hide something from yourself?  Is there something on your mind that you would rather ignore and not think about that needs to be dealt with?  Or are you just so used to constantly being subconsciously distracted that you don’t even notice?

Full disclosure: About halfway through writing this post, I closed down everything else on my computer.  I even shut off my fan – and it’s 85 degrees in my apartment.  My problem is not so much noise but the Angry Birds-type mindless game distractions.  If I don’t have three or four windows open at any given time, I worry that I’m missing something.  That’s what I found from this experiment, and now I hope to fix that.  


Expression – The Reversal

In an essay in her book, Sister Outsider, poet and activist Audre Lorde pondered the question of expression and entitlement shortly after she learned she had breast cancer:

I have come to believe. . . . that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. . . .

In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences. . . . I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself.  My silences had not protected me.  Your silence will not protect you. . . .

We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.  For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.

Taken from the book Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen.