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.
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