In Praise of Silence

At the height of the initial swine flu scare at the end of April, NPR posted an opinion piece on its website arguing that Twitter had exacerbated panic about the outbreak. The gist of the piece was that a limit of 140 characters gives no room for context or solid information. All it allows is the venting of fear, which creates even more--and usually more misinformed--anxiety and panic.

All that is probably true. And an important and valid concern. But what concerns me as much or more about incessant connection through Twitter, texting, Facebook, Crackberrys, and yes, even 24/7 instant news ... is that all those technologies enhance an already bad inclination humans (and especially Americans) have. And that is: an overweening desire to be distracted from being alone in silence ... or having to come to terms with whatever we might find there, if we slowed down enough to let it catch us.

Twitter, Facebook and cell phones didn't create this desire or problem. I've known people all my life who turned the television on as soon as they woke up in the morning and left it on until they went to bed at night, just to insure there was never complete silence in the house. All that the new connectivity, on-line virtual game options, and instant messaging do is make it easier to avoid the awful specter of silent, alone time. And yet ... just try to imagine Henry David Thoreau writing his masterpiece about Walden Pond while twittering, texting, and watching CNN.

We have a far more instantaneous culture, these days. "Downtime eliminators," as a friend of mine calls internet-capable cell phones, and all the communication sites and methods they enable, mean that even on weekends, instant replies are expected. And it's not just replies. Less than three minutes after an event, we expect a world of talking heads to pronounce judgement on the meaning of what's transpired. Patience has become not only a virtue, but an endangered species.

I can't change any of that. But among the many things that life has taught me over the years is that my first thought isn't always my best thought. And that truly understanding anything ... an issue, an event, or even the emotions swirling around within myself ... requires not just time, but enough space, solitude, and silence to allow some clear tones to emerge from the noise.

On one level, people have understood the power and importance of silence for a long time. It's why we go to the woods, or the ocean, or up on mountainsides to renew ourselves. And why we take up meditation, or spend time in quiet cathedrals. But even the most majestic mountainside loses a large piece of its power to inspire if it has to compete with a cell phone, text reply, or other efforts to stay connected elsewhere at the same time. Or even to record the moment, instead of simply being in it.

At home or in the course of daily life, the challenge is even greater. Once, all it took to get a little silence and space was turning off the radio. A decade or two later, it took turning off the TV and phonograph, as well. Today, our distractions are much more mobile, and we have more devices to turn off. We also have an ingrained habit of constant connection that makes disconnecting more difficult. And potentially more painful.

Where there's a will there's a way, of course. Which is what makes me suspect that at least part of the constant connectivity movement and technology stems from an inherent desire, within many of us, to have all that distraction. We are not, as a species, hard-wired for solitude. We're social animals, made to exist in tribes and packs.

And yet ... there's a unique kind of strength that comes from simply sitting in companionship with yourself and listening for what your heart or the world might tell you. Or allowing thoughts or events to percolate slowly against counter-thoughts, opinions, or trends. My best ideas don't occur to me when I'm feverishly involved in churning out words. They come when I give my mind permission to listen instead of talk. To just be for a while. Undistracted. Undisturbed. And sometimes not even consciously focused on the problem at hand.

That kind of space and silence may be a challenge to find in today's world. But below is something that helps. Not just the view out my window, but my favorite place to sit and think. Where thoughts, questions, answers, perspective ... and even the occasional hummingbird ... have a way of finding me, once I turn off all the gadgets and the noise.


Palo Alto, CA 2:00 pm