by Edward Curtin
August 02, 2016
is a sociologist and writer who
teaches at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and has published
Silence is a word pregnant with multiple
for many a threat
for others a nostalgic evocation
of a time rendered obsolete by technology
for others a sentence to boredom
for some, devotees of the
ancient arts of contemplation, reading, and writing, a word
of profound, even sacred importance
But silence, like so much else in the
present world, including human beings, is on the endangered species
Another rare bird - let's call it the
holy spirit of true thought - is slowly disappearing from
our midst. The poison of noise and busyness is polluting more than
we think, but surely our ability to think.
I am sitting on a stone step of a small cabin on an estuary on Cape
Cod. All is quiet.
Three feet in front of me a baby rabbit
nibbles on grass, and that nibbling resounds. A mourning dove moans
intermittently. I see the wind ripple the marsh grass and sense its
low humming. I feel at home.
dwelling in silent stop-time.
It strikes me how rare silence has become; how doing nothing seems
so un-American. Noise and busyness have become our elements. While I
watch the rushes sway, I wonder why wherever you turn people are
rushed and stressed. A frantic anxiety prevails everywhere.
Whether you ask the young, the
middle-aged, or the retired, they all report stress and lack of
"It's crazy," you often hear them
"It" is never defined.
Clearly there are powerful forces that profit from this noisy
busyness, this connected way of technological consumption, this
contraction of time. Everyone seems to have their reasons why they
are in such a state, but few imagine how and why it may be
They don't have the quiet time to do so.
Or they don't want to...
When I speak of noise I am not thinking primarily of the din we
associate with city life - cars, trucks, taxis, horns, sirens,
congestion, etc. - a world rushing to get somewhere for unknown
reasons. That noise, alas, is hard to avoid, even in small towns or
If I travel a half mile from where I sit
in silence, I will encounter such noise as people speed by in cars
on their search for a vacation from it.
Being in a secluded spot on Cape Cod for a few days is a luxury. I
realize that. So too is having these minutes to write these words.
Yet I know also that I am choosing to do so, and that for me the
luxury is also a necessity.
How could I live without "doing nothing"
in silence? Even the computer I am typing these words on tells me I
am wrong: it wants to correct my words "doing nothing" to "doing
anything." I'm surprised it doesn't tell me that I should be having
"fun," though perhaps doing anything is the equivalent.
The noise of modern life is hard to avoid completely, and, in any
case, it is the least disruptive of the silence I have in mind.
There is another kind of noise that is
self-imposed and whose purpose, consciously or not, is to make sure
one is not "caught" by silence. As those who flee from silence know,
it can be dangerous to one's reigning assumptions about self and the
world. Noise seems more comforting.
We all know people who go from morning ‘til night, day in and day
out, without ever pausing to enter the sounds of slow silence.
One doesn't have to look far for them;
technology has made them the rule. They race through their lives in
the cocoon of technological noise. They're informed, in touch, tuned
in to everything but their own souls. They drown themselves in the
incessant noise of televisions and radios, or the busyness of
telephone calls, texting, or trivia "that has to be done."
They are always planning, going,
organizing, and scheduling activities. Or talking... endless chatter
about the weather or shopping or the latest mainstream media's
They choose to fill their lives with,
distracting noise in order to
avoid the silence that might force them to confront issues
of self-knowledge that are the stuff of great books, true
art, a fully human life
self-knowledge that connects the
individual to his social circumstances in his historical
knowledge that might allow them
to grasp the sources of the profound anxiety and despair
that induces their franticness
This is what C. Wright Mills
called the sociological imagination.
For fifteen years the United States has been living under an
official state of national emergency and constant, paralyzing
fear - a fear that keeps people moving as fast as they can
so they don't stop and look back and see what has happened to them
and why and where they are heading... over the cliff.
It is another day now and I am sitting in the shade of a tree
looking out on a beautiful harbor filled with sailboats.
A seagull swoops and sails before me. A
strong wind picks up from the west. This water is the playground of
the wealthy. Unlike the poor, they can buy outer silence.
They seem to have plenty of time to
think deep thoughts, such as where did all their money come from:
I suspect they use their "free" time to
think of other things...
For some reason the rough water reminds me of all those refugees
fleeing war and chaos on the Mediterranean Sea. Desperate people...
Why must they die seeking
Why must they flee their
Who drove them to the boats?
The sea and silence brings these
thoughts to my mind?
Silent reverie can do that. It can
conjure up disturbing thoughts.
I often write about such matters. Most of what I write is serious
stuff, what people refer to as "heavy" writing: wars,
assassinations, coups, etc. - a lot of history, social issues,
philosophical and theological questioning. And I find that many
people find it tough to take.
They can't find the time or silent
concentration to read it closely and study to see if my analyses are
correct. I think they choose not to take the time to enter the
cocoon of silent concentration it demands.
They will nod or demur, but not delve
any deeper. Deeper means danger.
Those hundreds of thousands of fleeing boat people, for example,
Who is responsible for their
Who started the wars that drove
them from their homes?
Might we be implicated?
Do we bear responsibility?
Can we be silently attentive
enough to hear their cries and explore the facts?
Is the noisy busyness a
self-imposed distraction from the truth?
Do we live in bad faith?
Can we stop talking, stop moving, and
stop doing long enough to contemplate such matters?
Can we shut up long enough to
listen to what the silence might reveal?
What are we running away from?
Are there truths so deep and so
disturbing that they must be "silenced"?
I think so...
Slow silence would allow us to understand how the leaders of
the United States are pushing the
world toward the ultimate silence of nuclear conflagration by
with Russia. Most people are too
"busy" and too distracted - and therefore too
ignorant - to notice.
So for them it's not happening.
It's not happening, as Harold Pinter
said of all the countless war crimes committed by the United States
while the American people were hypnotized into thinking otherwise:
"It never happened. Nothing ever
happened. Even while it was happening it wasn't happening. It
didn't matter. It was of no interest."
We were too busy to notice. All we could
hear was noise, propagandistic bedlam.
A society suffering from socially induced attention-deficit disorder
is a society in a state of disintegration. Focused on the noisy
foreground of conventional thinking fueled by a mass media spewing
out endless distractions and pseudo-events, most people are lost in
a cacophonous mental chaos.
I'm not sure if there is any point in writing these words.
But I am sure that the art of writing implies the art of reading.
The writer creates and the reader recreates; both demand silence, a
not-doing, the cessation of all noise that serves to prevent true
Can you hear me?
The machines must be turned off.
"Our inventions," Thoreau noted,
"are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from
It is not hard to turn a switch, pull a
plug, or press a button; the hard part is wanting to.
Harder still, but equally necessary, is
the quieting of the mind, the silencing of the incessant internal
chatterboxes that accompany us everywhere.
Unless by some miracle we reject the bill of goods of noisy busyness
that has been sold to us to sow confusion, we are doomed. That might
sound hyperbolic, but it is not. We are being led to the slaughter
by crazed elites who are pushing
for a world war.
We are drowning in lies and more lies,
lies compounded by noisy repetition.
"There isn't nothing more powerful
than the odor of mendacity... You can smell it. It smells like
That's what I recently heard Big Daddy
say in a production of
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton once wrote that someday they
will sell us the rain:
in saying that he implied that any
essential, beautiful aspect of life could be destroyed by a
society hell-bent on destruction through war and consumerism.
Now that they have sold us noise and
speed to eliminate slow silence, we are in far deeper trouble. We
can't think straight, if we can think at all. And clear thinking has
never been more important.
Gandhi, the revolutionary, put it perfectly,
"In the attitude of silence the soul
finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and
deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness. Our life is a
long and arduous quest after Truth."