Silence is getting a bad rap lately. At best it’s labeled as indifference, at worst it’s straight-up complicity with evil. We’re constantly exhorted to speak up, to raise our voices, to add to the noise. If we’re not talking, the thinking seems to be, then we’re either in league with the devil or we’re nothing at all.
I have a bone to pick with that thinking. Noise, by itself, does little except disrupt, and it works directly against the internal processes of reflection and analysis. It makes listening difficult, if not impossible, and it complicates any attempt at quiet response. Perhaps the political wasteland we currently occupy can even be understood as the direct result of too much noise in too many living rooms for too many years.
Our big brains and slow-moving bodies weren’t designed for an environment of incessant inputs. We evolved for the mostly-peace of scrounging for food with our families and our tribes, with occasional interruptions of stark terror that goaded us into figuring out language and weapons and agriculture. At a neurological level we associate raised voices with fear, violence, threat. Throughout history we’ve shouted our funerals, our revolutions, our wars, our struggles against oppression and injustice. For millennia we have raised our voices to call each other to action when we needed to defend ourselves, to steel our courage, to wail our grief to the heavens. We pierced the silence of the night and the open field and the filthy alleys with our cries, and we were heard by listening ears.
Nowadays, though, our lives are full of voices. In many homes the voices of strangers persist in our spaces even while the occupants are asleep. We wake to music, we work and drive and exercise and socialize with the TV or radio or a podcast playing, we fall asleep to more music or a guided meditation or an audiobook. As we fill our lives with the voices of strangers, our own physical voices are used less and less. Face-to-face conversation has been challenged first by the telephone and then by the text message, our cries for common action have become timeline posts, mass emails, tweets.
What does it mean to be silent in such a world? What does it mean to speak? How do we discern when to raise our voices, when to listen, when to retreat into the stillness of our own hearts? When does speaking cause more harm than silence? These are the questions that we tend to brush aside, not only from the reflexive egotism that tells us our voices are essential, but from the equally reflexive core fear that they are not. As we wrap up a year in which ill-chosen, ill-considered speech held much of the world’s attention, let’s pause for a while and think about what our voices are actually for, and how to use them wisely in a world where noise has become the only constant.
©Mary Braden 2016