Columns 2009

Silence can be golden

You don’t hear much about hermits nowadays. I imagine that for many young people brought up amidst the instant and constant “in touch” revolution, the very concept of hermit is more foreign than the concept of a rotary dial. This thought occurred to me about sixty seconds after I narrowly avoided being hit by a woman in a car who was turning while talking on her cell phone. Since that took up one hand, she only had one left for the turn. This made her turn wide, very wide. So wide, in fact, that she came across her two lanes and into my lane, which was the lane of traffic going in the opposite direction.

But she never flinched, never stopped talking that I could tell, never took the phone from her ear. Didn’t even glance up as I swerved and honked. I have to assume that the new rules of the road are that cell phones always have the right of way and those of us who are driving the old fashioned way – say with both hands on the steering wheel and our focus on the road ahead – simply need to learn to adjust when we see the cell phone coming our way.

How many more studies need to be done that show when you multi task you do none of those tasks well before we accept that knowledge? Or are we destined to become a world of mediocrity in which many things are done but none are done very well?

That’s where the hermits came in.  Hermits, boys and girls, are people who voluntarily unplugged themselves from the world and left it behind in order to contemplate their own place in the universe – or their navels, for all I know – but who did that contemplation in total silence, surrounded only by nature and the sound of their own breathing.

Does anyone live enough in silence anymore to hear the sound of their own breathing? If they do, does it scare them or comfort them? 

As our civil discourse reaches levels of unprecedented rudeness and volume – and I don’t just mean health care debates or town hall meetings, I mean every day civil discourse from eating in restaurants to walking down the street – I wonder if we shouldn’t all take a lesson from those hermits and spend some time in silent contemplation of whatever it is that amuses us to contemplate.  Taking a deep breath, sitting quietly, learning to hear our own breath without fear of the silence, just might help bring civility back to our communal life if only by teaching us that silence and stillness are not to be feared.

Now before people start offering to teach me meditation in its many and varied forms, let me make clear that I’m not talking about going into a meditative state. I’m talking about just the quietness that comes while preparing dinner without the TV or iPOD on or the cell phone in your ear. I’m talking about the quiet of sitting at your dining room table and looking out at the birds at your feeders. Simple, quiet moments that give you a refreshing pause that need neither mats, outfits or teachers.

I worry especially that our children never have a moment to savor the healing power of silence. They are always connected to someone or something to the point where I have to wonder if the person in front of them disappears and the only reality is the person in the phone or on the other end of the text or Facebook page. Is that why the woman driving seemingly did not notice me as she turned into my lane? Was I simply not as real as the person on the other end of the phone?

Silence is something we should all try periodically. Shut the world out and just enjoy a moment when nothing is more important than watching the dust settle on your dinning room table. Everyone can find just that one moment in their day, can’t they?

And if I can’t convince you of that, can I at least convince you to only take two lanes for turning and stay the heck out of mine?