When I was growing up, silence was an important part of the family. My father studied every night, adding to his prodigious knowledge by reading, researching and taking notes. There was no internet, so there was a pile of books. It was our job to be quiet.
At dinner, we were allowed to contribute to the conversation if we could quote facts. Our opinions were not valued. My mother’s favorite instructive quote from from Eleanor Roosevelt: Great minds discuss idea, average mind discuss events, small minds discuss people. Whether or not Eleanor borrowed it from Hyman Rickover was inconsequential. If you couldn’t discuss ideas, you remained silent.
I often wonder what to make of the cacophony of cell phones, endless yakking, and noise as part of everyday life. In the Pentagon City Mall in Arlington, VA there are now flat screen TVs in every hallway. They are always on, in case the noise of the crowd and the noise of business is not enough. CNN plays every second my bank is open. I’m beginning to feel like I live in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
Silence is not only no longer golden, it’s intimidating. Cell phones ring, and are answered in movies, symphonies, plays and meetings. Silence is suspect. If someone asks a question, the first thing that comes to mind is tossed into the waiting space. I rarely see people without a phone or white earplugs anymore. We can’t stand quiet. People in supermarkets describe cereals and vegetables to unseen callers. We hate the sound of our own minds and hearts.
We not only multi-task, we multi-listen. Except, of course, we don’t. We don’t listen to a thing. We are just waiting our turn to talk.
Televised funerals of the famous pan over the audience while an announcer identifies the the A-list attendees. We don’t even know when silence is appropriate anymore.
Here’s a clue: when someone else is speaking, performing, or there is a screen with information on it, it is appropriate to be quiet.
Look around your house. How many TVs are on right now? What other noisemakers are running in your vicinity–music? Coffee grinder? Radio? Silence reduces stress. Silence opens the door to ideas, solves problems, allows forgiveness, yields the floor to joy. Enjoy it. Try it. For five minutes at a time. See how quickly you like it.
–Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach. She loves silence for long stretches of time when writing, creating alternative books or listening to others. See her work at QuinnCreative.com (c) 2008 QuinnCreative.com