Becoming a parent has taught me a lot about how our surroundings shape who we are. Whether there is music playing in the house, how much time our family spends outdoors, whether to buy a wooden or plastic toothbrush—small things like these take on greater importance when they contribute to the sort of world a little person is experiencing and absorbing in her first years of life.
Of course, as a first-time mom, I can go overboard at times, but still, the more I read about it, the more I believe it is true that environments help shape a child’s understanding of how she fits into the fabric of existence. More recently, I’ve been thinking about the role silence plays in that environment.
Our family just moved back from the city to the country, and we are sighing with relief. In the city, there were buses constantly hissing past, a television in the next building murmuring and cackling throughout the day, and always some piece of machinery—a lawnmower, a miter saw, a nail gun—buzzing and gnawing away in the background. I became so accustomed to the noise that I didn’t realize its effect on us.
But those effects are real and often deleterious. The rise of “noise pollution” can contribute not only to ecological decay but also to increased rates of heart issues, struggles in communicating, depression, anxiety, and many other health problems. Even animals need more silence. There are now ecologists devoted to restoring silence to nature so that animals and wildlife can communicate with one another for safety and food collection.
My family’s entrance into a quieter life, while a little foreign at first, eventually opened my eyes to the goodness of silence.
Silence is more than the absence of noise. It is not merely the condition of quiet when the television is turned off and the volume on the phone is turned down. Silence is too powerful to be described only as an absence. It is something positive: a certain kind of fullness that involves the whole of a person and borders the edges of peace.
Perhaps what at first seems like emptiness to adults will give us room to wonder, to see more deeply into ourselves and others, to see more deeply into things, than we could before. Maybe we will discover mistakes that need reconciling or desires and dreams we laid away. Maybe we will be better able to consider our course of actions before setting out—or, like me, able to realize that much of what I want to say does not need to be said.
Articles and statistics show that increasing numbers of people are looking for silence today. This likely correlates with the rise of technology, industrialization, and social media.
Indeed, our world needs more silence. But one doesn’t need to move, like we did, to find it.
Practically speaking, the pursuit of silence starts with giving ourselves external silence, turning off phones, podcasts, music, or television. It involves getting up in the morning for quiet time, entering into the ritual of making a meal, being mindful of the sights and smells and sounds of the outdoors, choosing to listen to a friend for a while longer before giving advice. When I was in school, I had teachers who would call for several minutes of silence before beginning class. These sorts of pauses before activities help us breathe, recollect, and enter more fully into the activities themselves.
It is more difficult to turn off the noise that is interior—the thoughts and ideas and inner voices that ramble and mumble within us through life—but it’s worth it. I’m still learning the art of silence, but when I choose to turn off whatever noise is around me, I am able to listen to the birds singing outside, or the chorus of insects on summer evenings, or the sound of our daughter’s sweet voice singing and babbling away upstairs. Silence opens us up to a deeper experience of the human, the immediate, and reminds us that the ordinary is extraordinary.