Those Who Walk Among Noise
Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice
– T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday
Do you ever stop to think how much modernity hates silence? If not, do think about it now. Consider the ubiquity of noise, helpfully - or unhelpfully - established by our phones, car radios, laptops, and MP3 players. There are TVs in our restaurants and hospital waiting rooms. Our bookstores and even our libraries have not wholly escaped the transcendent awfulness of the American Top 40. The billboards that loom over our streets and highways clamor at us without making a sound.
I realize that asking you to consider these things is more or less like asking a fish to think about the water it swims in. Noticing doesn't come naturally. I was born in '95. I have no memory of life before PCs and the Internet, let alone before television, let alone before automobiles. Many of you are in the same boat. To us silence is strange, even aberrant. Noise just is – and we take for granted that it always was.
Romanticizing the past is no good, of course, and I don't wish to do that here. I'm merely against uncritical acceptance of the present. There's always a reason behind a thing happening or not happening. So why noise? Why not silence? I know people who keep the TV on even when they're not watching it because a quiet house bothers them. Why? What drives us to prefer noise - any noise at all - to the privacy of our own thoughts?
Utilitarianism surely plays a role. Silence is worthless, less than worthless, even dangerous, to those running the rat race. Noise adds to the busyness, the (frequently false) sense of productivity. Silence subtracts from these things. We think in terms of “efficiency” and “output” and what it takes to “get ahead” in life; such that when Pascal observes that “all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” we nod in agreement yet are secretly horrified at the idea of spending even a minute away from our mad, mad, mad, mad world.
A utilitarian attitude seems admirable on the surface – who doesn't want to get things done? - until you realize it has the depth of a petri dish. Framed in Lewisian terms, it is forever thinking about survival value, and never thinking about that which gives value to survival. “Getting things done” is not the chief end of man, but rather (in the succinct words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism) to glorify and enjoy God. Timers and schedules have their place, but it is good to recall the definite phrasing of Psalm 46:10: “Be still, and know that I am God.”
Another reason many of us dread silence: boredom. This is unsurprising. Minds with an appetite for triviality and vice, fed by a culture ever more at odds with the transcendent, will hardly think thoughts with which we want to be alone for any extended period of time. Such is the way of sin: it excites, then it bites, then it bores.
Which brings me to my final contention: we dread silence because we are afraid. Afraid of the thoughts that might come rushing in to fill the void. Afraid of who we might discover ourselves to be when the noise dies down. The song “Car Radio” by Twenty One Pilots captures this fear brilliantly:
I have these thoughts
So often I ought
To replace that slot
With what I once bought
'Cause somebody stole
My car radio
And now I just sit in silence
Sometimes quiet is violent
I find it hard to hide it
My pride is no longer inside
It's on my sleeve
My skin will scream
Reminding me of
Who I killed inside my dream
I hate this car that I'm driving
There's no hiding for me
I'm forced to deal with what I feel
There is no distraction to mask what is real
I could pull the steering wheel
A lost soul robbed of distraction terrifies itself most of all. Straightaway the phrase “deathly silent” assumes a stark new meaning. Sometimes quiet is violent for saved souls, too, though in a very different way. We are no longer slaves to sin; we are its enemies, and mortification is a grisly business. Just ask St. Paul.
The song continues:
I ponder of something terrifying
'Cause this time there's no sound to hide behind
I find over the course of our human existence
One thing consists of consistence
And it's that we're all battling fear
Oh dear, I don't know if we know why we're here
Please stop thinking
I liked it better when my car had sound
The deeper questions, about God and about ourselves, are the questions we most earnestly try to avoid. They demand answers that we don't have or that we have outright rejected. Why are we here? What is man for? A corpse has better odds of passing the SAT than we have of answering these questions rightly. What then is left but to pretend the questions do not exist?
“Turn up the radio, please. You're gonna wanna hear this next one.”