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Long Beach, CA

The Problem of Noise and the Hope of Silence (Silence I)

Without silence, it is virtually impossible to grow in the spiritual life.[1]
Henri Nouwen

I recently saw a sound chart listing the noisiest and quietest places in America. It was disconcerting to see that I live in one of the loudest stretches of land this side of the Mississippi. If you step out of my doorway, even on a quiet morning, you don’t even have to listen too closely to hear the sound of the 405. In fact, you can hear the freeway from most anywhere in my town. Which is just an example of a larger reality: we are inundated with noise.

This prevalence of noise is, historically speaking, a relatively recent phenomenon. If you lived in a village in Medieval Europe, the sound of your day would have been, largely, the sound of silence. The peal of church bells would have been a stunning interruption to an otherwise quiet noise horizon. The timpani roll of thunder would have stirred your soul more deeply than it does ours, inured as we are by constant sound. Indeed, for most of human history, it is relative quiet that has marked the world; even in urban centers, you could find real silence, especially at night. And with the silence, actual darkness—no eternally-blazing neon lights. But that has all changed, and it has changed relatively recently, largely within the last century. Indeed, the modern world, with its myriad marvels, brings a barrage of sound. Today, it is quite possible to avoid silence altogether—and this long after Florence Nightingale wrote that “Unnecessary noise is the most cruel absence of care that can be inflicted on [the] sick or well.”[2]

She was quite right. As reported in Nautilus magazine: “In the mid-20th century, epidemiologists discovered correlations between high blood pressure and chronic noise sources like highways and airports. Later research seemed to link noise to increased rates of sleep loss, heart disease, and tinnitus. It’s this line of research that hatched the 1960s-era notion of noise pollution, “a name that implicitly refashions transitory noises as toxic and long-lasting.”[3] Constant noise activates cortisol—a stress hormone—which increases anxiety and, ultimately, deteriorates the mind and body. And in the midst of all of this, there’s some part of our soul that simply wants to sit in silence.

Growing up, I was taught to have a time of silence, every day if possible. We called it a “quiet time,” a space devoted to silence, scripture, and prayer. Most Christians I knew were directed by someone with authority to have a quiet time. And most of us—myself included—struggled to maintain consistent times of silence. Maybe this was because we tended to relate to solitude and silence as a task to perform, and so we resisted or resented it. Maybe it was because silence can be uncomfortable. Maybe it was because silence forces us to confront ourselves (not to mention God) and there were things within us that we didn’t want to face. Maybe all of the above.

But this issue is even more complex; the noise problem is about more than just sound. In fact, much of the noise we face isn’t even audible. Social media may not make a sound, but it makes a lot of noise. It stimulates us into constant “connectedness,” thinking, hearing, listening, and comparing ourselves to others. We can—all at once—have access to five hundred channels on television, two hundred and fifty stations on satellite radio, and a thousand sort-of-conversations on Facebook. We can, in short, be constantly stimulated.

This sort of overstimulation comes in many forms. Shopping at an American grocery store can be difficult because of the endless options: diverse kinds of tuna and brands of bread and varieties of cheese. When friends from New Zealand visited me and Becca, they felt overwhelmed by the lack of simplicity and the overabundance of options. In fact, having too many choices can tax our souls more than having too few. And we now live in a world in which we need never be bored. We have endless websites which we can access at any moment no further away than our front pockets. We have so many ways to keep the conversation in our mind always running, always occupied, never quiet.

So just as we live in world engulfed in hurry, we live in a world saturated with noise, both audible and inaudible. Even if we want to create space for our souls to sit in silence—and to be held by God in that place—we will not succeed until we recognize how far we have to go to escape the grasp of endless sound and stimulation. We must recognize that just as there is a Kingdom of God and a kingdom of darkness, so, too, there is a kingdom of noise. [4] We need not be deceived by outright darkness; if our souls are numbed by an over-frenzied state of stimulation, it will be enough to keep us from ever fully claiming our adoption as sons and daughters of the Living God. This is precisely the bondage into which endless noise can place us.

Silence in spiritual life is so important simply because it creates space to engage the reality of God beyond the noise. Without such space—if we remain endlessly inundated by noise—life will quickly pass us by. Silence then, is the great gift to spiritual life. We must learn to practice silence, to carve out space for it, because in our world, we hardly ever find it without effort and intention.


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Qtd. on The Emotionally Healthy Spiritualty Blog, ‘Change Your Brain Through Silence and the Daily office,’ November 4th, 2014. (March 11, 2017)

[2] Nightingale, Florence. Notes On nursing: what it is, and what it is not. New York: Appleton; 1860. Qtd. in ‘Hospital Design and Noise: A Message from Florence Nightingale.’ (March 13, 2017)

[3] Nautilus Magazine, Online, ‘This is Your Brain on Silence.’ August 24, 2014. (March 4, 2017)

[4] Cf. Mark 1:15, Ephesians 2:2