Who knows when it all started, this notion that there must be no sonic gaps in a life, that silence is not only not golden, but it is in fact awkward and therefore unseemly? We have even gone so far as to attach the word and notion of death to silence. We have turned our backs on quiet and embraced a never-ending wall of sound.
The widespread retreat of silence or at least quiet has been relentless. Since when has it been necessary for a documentary on spider web creation to have a sound track that included distorted electric guitar? What is it that this sonic assault is meant to do for us? Why do we need it? And why do we feel uncomfortable when it is not present? Why does silence feel awkward?
To reach this place you must turn off a motorway and drive 20 km along two-lane country roads that become less and less trafficked the further you go. Eventually you find yourself next to a small, walled cemetery turning onto an even narrower road. You then must follow this road another seven kilometers, being careful to go slow and honk your horn as you negotiate each of the many blind and narrow curves. Then you must make the sharp and steep turn to the left onto the rough and unpaved ‘road’ towards Poggio Secco. It is only after bumping and climbing up this graveled road that you pass an iron gate to your right and the road becomes a single car width. Another 50 meters and you have arrived.
Vistas open up around you, gazing down upon hills covered in trees and valleys in grass. There is no human sound here except for the occasional chainsaw when the season is right for such activity. No, it is the birds, the insects, and the deer that dominate the soundscape here. No music, no cars or trucks, few voices. It is often the first thing one notices here — the absence of noise. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of sounds. But no noise. Not only can you hear the sounds of birds and insect almost all through the year, but you can also hear the most emotional sound of all – the wind.
Birds, bugs, wind. These make sounds, not noise. This is because they remind us of where we are not — the realm of man. If it is quiet enough to hear birds, insects, and especially the wind, then you are in a place where man does not dominate. Beyond reminding us of this fact, these natural sounds do little to interrupt what usually happens when one finds themselves alone in such a soundscape – reflection.For some unknown reason, we who feel stress or suffer loss, we feel compelled to act like the rest of society and fill in every sonic space within which we move. We listen to music, to news, to podcasts, to radio and TV. It never ends. In some strange way we feel comforted by this noise. Some people who have suffered a blow in life often leave a radio or TV on at night to help them sleep. Who would begrudge such people a good night’s sleep? But is there a cost for all this noisy comfort? I think there is.
The price is what we sacrifice for the comfort of familiar noises – reflection. Often, in the depths of loss, reflection is the last thing we want. Reflection is the hideous black pit which returns no light, no joy, no love. It is the worst place in the universe. When one is in it, it is hard to imagine ever not being in it. And when one is out of it, one never wishes to ever return to it. We have come to equate silence as one of the agents that sends us there. Silence brings reflection and reflection brings dark feelings.
Sound is the cue that often defines where we are. Human noises remind us we are not alone and usually grab our attention – “wow, I haven’t heard that song in a long time!” And, as said before, that becomes a distraction, an obstacle, to reflection. But is it fair to categorise reflection as just an agent of despair, particularly in times of loss? Certainly, the absence of reflection at such a time can act like an anesthesia – pain, or the fear of impending pain, can be avoided to some degree. But like the metaphor, the pain does not go away. What does go away is the conscious effort to process the source of the pain. Avoiding reflection may feel momentarily pleasing, but the point of that reflection does not go away. In fact, the opposite may be happening – the consequences of loss can be normalized and internalized. They can simply become you and you them.
It is normal after the shock of loss to corral the wagons and keep out painful thoughts, and it is also normal to extend that relief through tactics that postpone reflection. But the sooner you can embrace the idea that while reflection may indeed open up feelings of pain, there may be no other way to really process the loss than to feel the feels.
And even outside the bubble of loss, normalizing noise is so prevalent that we don’t even notice it. Turn on your TV and tune into a nature documentary and focus on the sound track. There is no escape from the noise. Tune in children’s programming and advertising. It is relentless. Go on public transportation or into a restaurant. There is no escape from noise. It seems there is no human endeavor that does not include the making of noise. Just watch two people converse directly. What percentage of conversations that you witness involve speaking in raised voices?
So where is all this leading? I hope to moments of silence – lots of them. If you are reeling from loss, protect yourself from pain, but not at the expense of healing. Take time, make time, to reflect. Feel what you’re feeling and give it a name so you can recognize it when it comes back around again.
Reflect on anything – your feelings, your relationships, your work, your joy, your sorrow, etc. Reacquaint yourself with yourself. Remember, critical thinking begins with reflection. If we stop reflecting we are on a very slippery slope indeed.