The Sounds of Silence

One of the hallmarks of modern society is unrelenting noise. The persistent sounds of traffic, sirens, cell phones, television and unsolicited conversations are all part of contemporary life and “living out loud.” We have come to accept as normative the constant bombardment of visual and auditory noise. From electronic devices which keep us plugged in, turned on and up to the minute with tweets and interruptions of all stripes to the incessant chatter in our heads, there is sparse refuge from sound.

Have you ever wondered why restaurants intentionally create noisy environments so that you have to scream to be heard by your dinner partner? The goal is not sound aesthetics but moving customers in and out more quickly to generate revenue. Ironically, a 2016 study by the Action on Hearing Loss found that over 80% of those surveyed had difficulty holding conversations while eating out, even got hoarse as a result, and tended to avoid loud restaurants whenever possible.

So, why do we seek and generate noise? Why the instinct to turn on the car radio rather than drive in silence or fill the void of stillness in a conversation with mere chatter?

Theories range from the practical to the psychological and the spiritual and defy a short or simple answer. But a great deal has been written about how we use noise and conversation as a distraction to avoid dealing with inner conflict and issues that lie beneath the surface. Creating and seeking external stimuli allows us to circumvent our inner, more contemplative self.

Judaism views the ability to speak as the ultimate gift to humans. Speech separates us from other forms of life and enables us to fulfill God’s mission to be holy. But speech was given to us to be used purposefully, and only by balancing our speech with the ability to embrace silence do we gain wisdom.

The Jewish tradition has much to teach us about the idea of silence. The Shema, the prayer which is at the heart of Jewish faith and tradition, opens with the words: “Listen/hear Israel, the Lord God is one.” One message we can glean from these words is that only when we become inwardly quiet, can we hear the wisdom within and around us that enables us to encounter and understand the divine.

Cultivating the art of listening offers us an opportunity to live with greater awareness and intention. When we minimize our need to respond verbally to the external world, we maximize our ability to reflect meaningfully on our internal world.  When we refrain from automatically reacting with words of our own, we make room for the insights and understandings of others. As is written in the Ethics of the Fathers: “The vehicle for wisdom is silence.”

A wonderful reminder of our need for silence is the Jewish Sabbath. Shabbat is intended to help us turn down the volume of the world by freeing us from the din of  computers and cell phones and the chatter of the workplace. It offers us a day of the week to intentionally seek quiet as a means of renewing ourselves. By eliminating work and technology, we can enter into a different state of being, one that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described as a “mine where the spirit’s precious metals can be found.”   And, just as the body needs rest to be healthy, the soul needs silence to grow.  As the Talmud says: “There is no better medicine than silence.”

Jewish sages valued silence as vital to living a meaningful life. This is beautifully described by Rabbi Gamliel who said: “All of my life I was privileged to be in the company of the wise men of Torah and I learned from them that nothing is more valuable to productive living than silence.”

Appreciation for quiet, solitude and silence may be an attribute of aging. I know that my own need to limit the noise of life has increased with age, but I also know that the benefits of creating more quiet are discernible.

Being quiet is an invitation for others to share; it also provides the space for others to feel heard.  And listening – to parents, children, friends and colleagues – can generate a deeper awareness and teach us much about life. I am often reminded of this bit of Solomonic wisdom, especially when speaking with my adult children:  “Closing one’s lips makes a person wise.”




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