We are a culture that does not value silence. We are bombarded by noise, be it music, television chatter, mechanical sounds or podcasts. It is hard to find silent space in our lives, and for many, silence is uncomfortable. We are so used to constant noise that we don’t know what to do with the rare occasions that there is a void of noise.
I believe one reason we fail to appreciate silence is that it seems unproductive. If we are driving the car and keeping up with the news, or returning phone calls or having our emails read to us by our smart devices, we feel efficient and productive. At the very least, if we aren’t working while driving, we can entertain ourselves with music or podcasts.
The same pattern is repeated in other venues: doctors’ offices, restaurants and airports—even walking down the street. I walk in the early morning and enjoy the songs of birds that signal to me the world is waking up to another day, but many of my neighbors who are walking at the same time don’t hear the birds or other nature sounds because they have their headphones in their ears. I don’t know what they are listening to, but I have to wonder if it is as renewing as the morning sounds of birds, bugs and wind in the trees.
Silence for me is more than simply an absence of noise. It is accompanied by an inner stillness that is essential to being fully present where I am. Silence creates pauses in our lives, allowing us to catch our breath, to remember who we are and whose we are, to reclaim the peace for which we are made. But silence is usually not forced on us or encouraged by our surroundings. We have to want to be silent. We have to seek silence. We have to be intentional about carving out time and space for silence.
I read a line in a book recently that contrasted the spiritual life with a life lived without consciousness. To think that the opposite of living a spiritual life is living a life without consciousness shows me the importance of silence. When our lives are filled with noise, we end up living lives without consciousness. Thomas Merton spoke of the mindlessness of Muzak and how, even if we had to be in places filled with noise, recognizing our yearning for silence keeps us open to be renewed. In contrast, if we are numbed to the noise around us, and have no desire for something different, we cannot be renewed.
Like a field that needs to lie fallow so that depleted nutrients can be restored, we need silence for our own spiritual restoration.