Columns 2013

The forgotten sounds of silence

Do you sometimes wonder when we lost the ability to savor silence? Or is that a question asked only by those of us born before the constant cacophony that is our present day world? I’m not speaking strictly of the noise we hear with our ears. I’m speaking about the constant noise that assaults our brains through the electronics to which we are constantly attached.

This thought occurs as I get ready to take a quick trip to see my old college roommate. The trip involves a flight, as do most that start in Alaska. There was a time in the not too distant past when travel meant a chance to turn the noise off and go to a more peaceful place. Now we take all our stress with us, afraid if we disconnect for even a moment our world will go on without us. For some, that would be the final proof needed that they are simply not as important to existence as they’d imagined.

Back in my mostly misspent youth, my sister and I traveled the world. Each year we’d pick some remote location for our vacation, one usually guaranteed to send our family to an atlas and our mother to church to light candles towards our safe return. I enjoyed these trips immensely. I got to spend time with my sister, one of my all time favorite people, and I got to give my brain a break.

You see, kids, back in the pre-historic days of plane travel, back when the airlines actually treated you as though they were happy to have you onboard by plying you with food, drink, blankets and pillows FOR FREE, being in a plane meant being disconnected from all that you knew or thought you knew. You could read a book in perfect silence and savor every word and plot twist. There was no pressure to make a phone call, clean up a spreadsheet or feel guilty about totally blowing off all work anxieties. Your only responsibility was to hold your breath during landings so that they were safely accomplished.

Once Judy and I arrived at whatever exotic locale we’d chosen, our brains’ vacation continued. We had no electronics attaching us to the world we’d left behind. We spent no time looking for a wi-fi connection or texting and e-mailing to our work. We actually took a vacation, one in which we were totally absorbed in the often new and fascinating culture we were encountering while totally forgetting that other world in which we existed the rest of the year.

I don’t know what words to use to explain just how amazing it was to be so totally wrapped up in something so completely alien to our experience that the world we normally inhabited faded into almost non-existence. We were entranced by the art, music, language and customs of a world apart from ours, and absorbing those sensations gave us a total break from our daily reality. Getting on the plane to return home was often the most unreal part of the trip. We had to shake ourselves to re-enter the world we’d left behind.

Does anyone nowadays get to have that kind of break? And if they don’t, how do they handle the constant impacts on their brains? Instead of quietly reading that mystery that’s been sitting on the bedside table for a year, people sit on planes staring at computer screens trying to work out budgets. Instead of immersing themselves in the moment in which they find themselves, they search frantically for some sort of connection to the world they paid to leave behind. And their brains never do get a real vacation.

When I get on a plane, I carry enough reading material to see me through a nuclear winter. I settle back into my seat and go away from everyone and everything. I get lost in a world that has no connection to my reality. My brain smiles as this experience washes over it.

If I had one piece of advice to the younger generation, it would be this. Don’t be afraid of disconnecting. Don’t be afraid of the sounds of silence. And for goodness sake, put that stupid cell phone away. Believe me, you will find joys beyond your expectations on the other side of the off button.