Silence, Please

For our children’s sake, we should follow the Trappist monks and turn off everything, including ourselves, once in a while

There is no such thing as silence,” said the composer John Cage, and technically that is true. Even profoundly deaf people have varying degrees of tinnitus and in those places we think of as silent, if we stand still and listen, we hear the white noise resembling the sound of a distant sea in our own ears. Perhaps we should call it something else. However, we know what we mean by “silence” and besides, it is a beautiful word.

We have betrayed several generations of children in many ways — by giving the teaching of skills priority over that of knowledge, by making exams easier out of a false egalitarianism, by letting them choose their own morality from a soup of political correctness, by over-emphasising the importance of the computer as if it were anything more than a useful tool, and of the internet as if it were more content-rich than books. But we have also betrayed them by confiscating their silence and failing to reveal the richness that may be found within the context of “a great quiet”. 

It is fatally easy, as one grows older, to slip into the habit of grumbling that nothing is what it was and lamenting the inferiority of what is. We live in a noisy world but we have a remarkable facility for blotting out sounds that have no meaning for us at any given moment. We are a remarkably adaptable species. Trains have never been quiet places yet many people read books, and not just the literary equivalent of fast food, on them and many do scholarly and other work requiring considerable concentration. A high-flying friend who went through an academic career achieving “A” grades and starred firsts was never able to study without a background of pop music. Traffic, aeroplanes, iPods, muzak, TV, radio, constant chatter, barking dogs, heavy machinery — we no longer hear them. Yet when we arrive in a place of profound quiet, we “come to” and find something of ourselves that we did not realise we had lost, an attentiveness, a renewed awareness of our own innermost thoughts and sensations, as well as a great calm. 

But so difficult has it become to find such oases of silence, that many children never experience it. In adapting to constant noise, we seem to have become afraid of silence. Why? Are we afraid of what we will discover when we come face to face with ourselves there? Perhaps there will be nothing but a great void, nothing within us, and nothing outside of us either. Terrifying. Let’s drown our fears out with some noise, quickly.

The critic Philip Hensher complained recently about the background music to an exhibition, saying that museums were far better silent. Libraries always were relatively so, and certainly most academic reference ones still are, but muzak has been creeping into public lending libraries lately, because the management has decided that silence is elitist and off-putting — despite numerous voices raised to the contrary.

When Tim Waterstone opened the first bookshops in what was to become a huge chain, he insisted background music was always played in them, bringing them down to the level of the supermarket or fashion store. My doctor’s waiting room has a DVD player permanently on and it is rare to find a coffee shop in which loud music does not compete with the bang and hiss of the espresso machine. 

Children grow up to a racket from birth — and indeed, pre-birth, given that expectant mothers are now encouraged to place themselves and their unborn child close to music. It is not that all sound, or even all noise, is bad, so much as that silence is good and that in pushing it aside we are denying ourselves and our children a profound experience. 

If you go into a place of very great quiet and stay there for a while, you become aware first of all of the individuality, the identity perhaps, of any sound that penetrates it. When we put half a dozen items of food on to a fork and then into our mouths and chew them all up together, we miss the enjoyment of each distinctive flavour and texture. We probably cannot avoid going through much of our day in a confusion of sound but if we go into a place of silence and listen, we begin to understand the separate quality of everything we hear — the rustle of the wind through leaves, the song of one particular bird, the tap of a stick on the ground, the throatiness of a single cough, the hush and rasp of waves turning over on shingle, the lap of water against a jetty, the drip of a tap, a soft footstep on grass. If the silence is deep enough we may hear a watch tick. In a quiet library, the turning of a page, the scratch of pencil on paper, are separate, distinctive, sounds. They identify themselves to us, they have a personality. They are beautiful. It is not only natural sounds that gain a richness set in the context of silence — all sounds do. To deprive ourselves and our children of the ability to distinguish such aural detail is to diminish our sensory life. 

Silence is a rich and fertile soil in which many things grow and flourish, not least an awareness of everything outside oneself and apart from oneself, as well, paradoxically, as everything within. The Bible is full of people gaining understanding and wisdom and being given important messages, when they go into silent places, to pray or simply to rest in the presence of God. Prophets and saints went into deserts and up mountains. Jesus felt the need to get away from the crowds that followed him and pressed in on him, to be alone to pray and be refreshed, gather himself together again in silence and solitude. We call it recharging our batteries. 

Our children are too rarely given that opportunity or taught that the contrast between noise and quietness, like the parallel one between being in company and being alone, is vital to the growth and maturity of the individual. Silence is a place, a quality but its value increases when it is entered into as a place of contrast. We enjoy the light so much because the darkness exists. Silence is all the richer when experienced after we have been in noisy places. Solitude is enjoyable as a contrast to company. A friend teaches in a primary school and her class raised money by having a sponsored silence. Not only did they do well financially — she told me that they enjoyed the novelty of being quiet so much they asked if they could have a “silent time” more often, so she has set aside half an hour for it every Friday afternoon. It has had a magical effect on the behaviour of some hyperactive seven year olds, and when asked to draw or write a description of what the silence means to them, what they feel or think or imagine or hear or see when they are inside their silent space, she told me that the results are the best of any she has had from them. They have focused and concentrated, and gone down into their own minds and hearts, to become aware of all kinds of subtleties and minute details of the world around them, as well as within themselves, in the stillness and quietness. 

In thinking about silence, I started to find references to people’s need, indeed their yearning for it, almost everywhere I turned. My local church had as an experiment a service in the style of the French monastery at Taizé, considerable parts of which involve sitting in silence, and found it so spiritually rewarding that more are planned. The local Quaker meeting house reports a great increase in attendees. I read about the popularity of retreats at Launde Abbey, in Leicestershire, to which, the chaplain says, many go who are “desperate for silence”. The monastic way of life still holds a tremendous fascination for many seekers after truth, God, meaning, the life of the spirit — and silence. TV programmes about it garner large viewing audiences, in an apparently secular age in which the agenda of aggressive atheism becomes ever more vocal. The attraction of monasticism is entirely understandable. Spend half an hour in a monastery, even as a passing visitor, and only the most prejudiced or resistant could fail to be impressed by the quality of the silence, in which deep spirituality and prayerfulness flourish and the sense of God is all but palpable. But it is not only believers who are most affected. In his great book about weeks spent as a guest in various monasteries, A Time to Keep Silence (John Murray, 2004), Patrick Leigh Fermor vividly describes the extraordinary impact it made upon him and the profound effect of the deep, perpetual silence in which monks live, move and have their being. It marked him for life and he was not and has not become a man of a faith, Christian or otherwise. He was, though, humble and accepting of the places in which he stayed, open to the experience and acutely sensitive to the absolute sincerity and joy of the monks who pass their entire lives in prayer, much of it silent. He was that rare thing, a pious and respectful unbeliever. He also stresses the significance of individual sounds in this world of deep quietness — the pat of leather sandals on stone floors, the tolling of a bell, the voices raised in chant, which are as remarkable and powerful as the lighting of the first candle in the darkness of the chapel in the middle of the night. Even reading about life in these monasteries brings a sense of quietness and peace. 

But to enter into it more deeply still, I recommend you take a peaceful time alone to watch the extraordinary and unique film, Into Great Silence, made in the Carthusian monastery of La Grande Chartreuse, in the French Alps. The film-maker, Philip Gröning, was allowed unprecedented access to the intimate daily life of the monks and the result is several hours of intense, concentrated, almost crystallised silence, within which everyday sounds and movements are highlighted so that we become aware of them as perhaps never before. Rain patters on to the grey slate roofs, snow creaks as it melts in the sun, a brother chinks a fork against a tin dish to summon the cats for feeding and cow bells make their tinny sound as the animals are let out to pasture in spring. There is the sound of scissors cutting cloth and a razor cutting hair, the wooden wheels of the cart delivering meals to the cells clatter along a passage, an axe chops wood. It is as if one had never heard these things before, as they reveal their small, subtle differences against the background of awe-inspiring quiet. 

Without an experience, preferably a regular one, of what it means to spend time in silence, we are impoverished and we communicate that impoverishment, and our slowly withering appreciation of the joys of quietness, to our children. Their nature, their very instinct, is to make a noise. The sound of a playground of primary school children or their chatter, like a flock of birds as a bevvy of them pass us by in the street, are among the most joyful in the world. Children want and need to move, to leap and jump, hop, skip and run. It is not in the nature of the child to yearn to sit still or keep silent. We must teach them how to do it and to be comfortable within and unafraid of silence, because those are human needs, as much as fruit, good meat, fish, milk, bread, love and tenderness, stories and songs. Silence nourishes an inner awareness and a deep though not uncritical contentment with self. In silence, we learn to feel happy in our own skins, we discover what our personal resources are for dealing with the problems, stresses and complexities of the world and how we can deepen and strengthen them.

If children do not learn to focus and concentrate in a pool of quietness, their minds become fragmented and their temperaments irritable, their ability to absorb knowledge and sift it, grade it and evaluate it do not develop fully. Reading a book quietly, watching a raindrop slide slowly down a windowpane or a ladybird crawl up a leaf, trying to hear the sound of a cat breathing when it is asleep, asking strange questions, such as, “Where do all the colours go at night?” and speculating about the possible answers — all of these are best done in silence where the imagination can flourish and the intricate minutiae of the world around us can be examined with the greatest concentration. If there is a constant jazzy buzz from which no one ever frees them, and which distracts and diverts until they are confused and then rendered punch-drunk by aural stimuli, children become unsettled and anxious — and life is an anxious business for them at the best of times. We are responsible for giving them the great gift of time spent in silence so that they can begin to understand and experience its healing properties and become aware that it will always be there for them to draw upon, if they are only taught how to find it. Once they have, they will never lose the longing for periods of silence or, when they have attained them, the enrichment they bring. We must not to deprive them of this as we have, though perhaps unknowingly, deprived them of so much else.

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