THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE by Irene Radford
We lost power this morning. I should have known before I opened my eyes that electricity had failed to flow through the wires. I should have known by the silence.
No hum from the refrigerator. No whine of the furnace. The freshly fallen blanket of snow muffled any hint of traffic from Highway 26 one half mile away. No TV or radio. I heard only the chiming inside my head of chronic tinnitus and the roar of my kitten purring.
Even when the world is silent around me, I am not. Which brings me to the point of this essay. Not only do we have little opportunity for silence in our modern lives, we go out of our way to avoid it. We surround ourselves with noise until it becomes a physical wall between us and reality. How far into the woods must we go to hear an earthworm wriggling through the dirt? Provided of course no airplanes pass overhead without mufflers.
Yesterday at the mall, my husband and I cringed as we passed each new store front. Grinding music blared at us. Flat, hard surfaces and towering ceilings amplified and distorted the sounds until they were unrecognizable. Dissonance that frayed nerve endings. People shouted at each other to be heard over the noise. Babies screamed in pain from the assault of sound and confusion. We were tempted into the large, over-priced anchor stores were there are soft surfaces to absorb sound and the musak is gentle, sophisticated, unobtrusive, or even better soft jazz on a live piano. The ambiance tempts us to linger, and the longer we stay the more we are willing to spend. The more soothing the atmosphere, the higher the prices.
We sought shelter in a restaurant rather than the food court to get away from it all. Even there we had to ask for the music to be turned down.
And suddenly the entire facility quieted. The distorted bass ceased to drive nails into our spines. Conversations became muted. The babies stopped crying. Life became enjoyable again.
I’ve seen reports that the driving music is a marketing ploy. It makes our brains too tired to make decisions. We let salespeople make them for us and we spend more money because our judgment is compromised.
So why do we do this? Why do we crank up the sound on our MP3 players and home entertainment centers? Why do we choose to hang out at the mall?
I don’t know for certain, but I have a few ideas. My handle on a number of internet sites is Ramblinphyl, so let me ramble just a bit to set this up.
One of my brothers served in Viet Nam. If the world is too silent for him, he finds himself hiding under something, listening for the next bomb to fall. Having music or television on softly in the background is part of his coping mechanism for Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. He listens to BBC America on the TV. Nowhere near as intrusive as driving rock music.
I have tinnitus. It’s chronic, the side effect of a prescription drug I took twenty plus years ago. If I hope to concentrate, especially on a creative effort like writing books, I need something to listen to, other than my own head, with half my brain. Having soft New Age music in the background drowns out the persistent carillon and frees the voices of my characters.
Any teenager will tell you that the only reason they exist is for the Universe to dump on them. They believe themselves alone in their constant struggle to survive reality and understand themselves. From their perspective life is traumatic. Each trivial problem gets blow out of proportion into crisis of Biblical proportions. l can understand their need to isolate themselves behind the earbuds of their electronic gadgets. By the time they reach their 20s and start taking responsibility for themselves and their lives, they should outgrow this need. By then the noise and the separation have become an addiction. At least the personal music players are more polite than the blaring boom boxes of the 1980s.
There is a wonderful moment In the 4th Star Trek movie “The Voyage Home”, the one with the whales, Spock and Kirk are on a bus in San Francisco. An obnoxious young man refuses to turn down his boom box. The music interferes with conversations and the ability to think beyond the pain of the noise. Spock reaches over with his infamous neck pinch. The man looses consciousness. His head falls forward and hits the off button. The entire busload of people applaud with appreciation for the new silence.
I’ve given up going to the theater to watch movies, especially the ones where the special effects are the stars of the show and the plot and dialogue incidental. The dialogue portion of the sound track is so compressed I cannot understand a word that is said without closed captions. I’ll give up big screen dynamics for plot and dialogue, thoughtful character development, and pure enjoyment of the story any day. Fireworks and thrill rides should enhance the story, not replace it.
That’s why I write and read—for the story, for the thought provoking questions asked and not always answered, for the characters with lives and problems and loves and sadness and joy. That’s why my DVD library is filled with gentle and thoughtful movies rather than blockbusters.
Noise interferes with our ability to think. Thinking is hard work even without interference and distractions. I prefer selecting the sounds around me with care so that I can think and understand the Universe around me a little better rather than having it imposed upon me by others.