In praise of silence

By Martin Vogel

Harry Eyres writes in the FT on our aversion to silence:

“We have developed into a society or culture that is afraid of silence. The noise is now so great in many public places, partly because of all the mobile phone conversations conducted in them, that I am surprised people can actually hear the others they are phoning.

“Constant noise appears to be reassuring, or at least to be thought so. That is why music or muzak plays in shops, restaurants and on aeroplanes when they are about to take off or land. But what happens when noise is so loud and ubiquitous that you can no longer hear yourself think?

“Then the thought occurs that the whole point of all this din is to stop people thinking, or confronting themselves. The scary thing about silence is that you are left with yourself; the mirror which might have been conveniently darkened or blurred is now uncomfortably clean and unforgiving.”

He’s writing in response to A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland, which I’ve not read. His article resonated with my own increasing appreciation of silence.

Long before iPods, and before them Walkmans, a music soundtrack accompanied my life as much as possible. At some level, it helped my mind switch off and to become more connected with life. But the iPod finally killed this for me.

When I first got an iPod, I uploaded my entire music collection and more or less listened to all of it over several months as I cycled to and from work. I found I didn’t much like most of the collection and still less did I like constant noise in the background. Where before, a soundtrack helped me relax, now it was becoming a source of distraction and stress.

More recently, I’ve noticed that I opt for silence by default. For as many years as I can remember, the start of my day was arranged to the rhythms of the Today programme on the radio. It connected me with the world beyond. My childhood and teenage memories of Today are of civilised, sophisticated and affable presenters whom it was a pleasure to invite to your breakfast table. But through the years that I was working at the BBC, the mix became more toxic.  The political culture seemed to demand a more austere diet of aggressive interrogation of guests. It felt like a civic and professional duty to listen, but no longer one that was wholesome. I was surprised how quickly the habit of listening fell away once I left the corporation. Nowadays, I’ve already checked the headlines on my phone before I even switch on the radio and as often as not I forget to switch it on at all.

Similarly, when driving I surprise myself by driving long distances in silence where before I couldn’t contemplate travelling without a playlist of podcasts or some music to alleviate the boredom. I currently need to drive to Oxford reasonably frequently and look forward to the opportunity to be with my thoughts and to take in the hills of the Chilterns as I speed through.

Silence lets us connect with ourselves in ways which are too infrequent in contemporary life. I notice this with my coaching clients. One of the greatest gifts you can give as a coach requires no particular skill or training; just the discipline to ask a question and then shut up. To experience the time and space to explore one’s thoughts is such a contrast to the demanding busyness of normal everyday life that it’s almost a value in itself. The icing on the cake is that it refreshes the mind, helps us see things in new ways and ultimately fosters a more grounded and measured approach to life.

Image courtesy ell brown.