Silence makes people uncomfortable. I say that as a very social, very talkative person, a lecturer, a writer, a lover of words who used to have to deliberately restrain herself in the classroom from asking students follow-up questions too soon without giving them ample time to think and to answer. Silence is uncomfortable in most situations.
One of the revealing discoveries about the stay-at-home orders of the coronavirus is an awareness of how much noise has infiltrated our daily lives and how blessed silence really is as a quiet time in which to sit and be still and hear the whispers of our inner voice — of the truth, of our vision, of god. Without the beeps and burps of cell phones, the eternal babble of the television, the constant assault of ads and e-mails and internet nonsense, without the endless robocalls and intrusive solicitations, even without the constant social calls from friends, relatives and associates, the silence has been both deafening and blessed. I realize in these last few weeks that I can, once again, hear myself think, and I realize that I can get used to this as a permanent “new normal.” I am so much better without all the noise. Aren’t we all?
I’m not the only one who has noticed the benefits of silence. People, especially in cities, are suddenly hearing the coos, chirps and warbles of birds again, and newspaper features all over are heralding the sudden interest in bird watching as a hobby. Sales of binoculars are up, along with photographs of birds on Facebook and how-tos for building birdhouses on YouTube. With the arrival of spring, residents who are eager to get outside have discovered an activity that is interesting, safe, and “socially distanced.”
Here in Texas, a new analysis released by researchers at Southern Methodist University found that noise levels created by humans —car and truck traffic, airplanes, sirens, music, etc. — have dropped roughly 30 percent since late March when the Governor closed schools and limited activity in the state. “Seismologists are listening for the sounds of silence,” read a recent headline from the Dallas Morning News. (May, 27, 2020) Seismometers used to detect earthquakes can also detect everything else that makes the ground vibrate. With noice levels significantly down, especially in cities, the hope is that researchers will discover even more creative ways to use seismic stations to monitor and predict other kinds of events.
I have written before here about the quiet comfort of snow days in the Northeast, about how they gave me “permission” to suspend all schedules and obligations and thus resulted in “found time.” I now feel as though I am on a perpetual snow day because all schedules have been upended. I have cancelled my hair appointments, my nail appointments, my routine doctor and dental appointments, even the routine visits for my dog at the vet. I don’t have to make any meetings, attend any social engagements — heck, I don’t even have to go to church. In short, I suddenly seem to have all the time in the world to do what I want and to decide what that is.
Some of my recent discoveries in this era of silence have been more in the nature of re-discovering old loves and old habits. For example, I have easily read more than a dozen books in the last twelve weeks while at home. That’s a good thing. Voracious reading used to be part of my regular routine, but in the last few years, even in retirement, other things always got in the way and I was always too tired late at night to grab one of the books on my nightstand. Now, however, without adhering to schedules that often depend on others, I am back to my own biological rhythms: I get up later (8:30 am or so) and then stay up reading till after midnight.
I find that I am also “studying” my creative projects more carefully, just sitting and sketching and writing and planning what it is that I’m going to do next. This is a habit not constrained by time, but shaped by what it is that I want to accomplish. Sometimes, with the days moving more slowly and the hours lingering in silence, I just sit and wait for the moment, the movement, the inspiration. All that comes from the quiet.
These days, I am more “mindful” (if you’ll excuse the cliché) than I’ve been in a long time. Yes, I am canning and preserving, baking bread, cooking and freezing, sewing and creating, reading, writing and corresponding and, of course, cleaning and disinfecting my house as so many others are doing. That may sound as though I’ve become a whirling dervish, but it doesn’t feel like I’m whirling because I concentrate on one thing at a time. “Monkey minds” that are full of distractions find it impossible to focus on even the most mundane activities, much less to do them well, or safely. In our current political, twitter climate, that presence of mind is exactly what we’ve been missing. Nobody makes good decisions when they are frazzled and fractured.
Perhaps the sequestering of this pandemic will help people rediscover the sound of silence, the solace and wisdom that might be found inside themselves. Maybe if we all slow down and listen carefully, we might once again recognize the truths that matter, about our families, our nation, our moral centers, our inner selves. To rediscover ourselves would be a redemptive outcome from this whole dark disaster:
Hello darkness my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because the vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence.
Lyrics by Paul Simon, 1964
Postscript: Over these last three days or so, the sounds of silence have been broken by the sounds of sirens and shattered glass all across America. The anguish and outrage over the senseless death of George Floyd in Minneapolis serves as an urgent message from the future still resounding from the past: we do, indeed, need to return to a “new normal” after the coronavirus epidemic, one that requires a great deal more than just a vaccine and an economic reboot.