Many, many years ago, I picked up an old used copy of a book, The World of Silence, by Swiss philosopher, Max Picard. At the time, I didn’t know who Picard was, but the book looked interesting and had a preface by Gabriel Marcel, a philosopher whose work I did know. So, I bought it.
Max Picard wrote in The World of Silence, “Silence is nothing merely negative; it is not the mere absence of speech. It is a positive, a complete world in itself.” He goes on to observe, “One cannot imagine a world in which there is nothing but language and speech, but one can imagine a world where there is nothing but silence.” Similarly, in a much more recent book, Seeing Silence, Mark C. Taylor observes, “Not merely the absence of noise, silence is the stillness that sounds and resounds in all sounds and echoes in every word.”
Not a mere absence…
To say that silence is not the mere absence of something else—whether of speech or even more so, as Taylor wrote, “noise”—is to say that silence has a kind of Being of its own. Silence is not nothing—i.e., a no-thing.
There is too little silence in the world we share in these times. I think first of Ukraine and all places consumed by violence, where there is the constant noise of aircraft, explosions, and gunfire. I think of children who bury their heads under their pillows to try to drown out the yelling and screaming of arguing parents. All too often the absence of silence is marked by fear or frustration, hatred and anger.
Outside of the noise of fear, the world itself is just very noisy. I live in a major metropolitan area where the noise of traffic is commonplace. It seems to me that so often people need to live in noise to drown out something else, perhaps the voice of their own mind or conscience. We need noise to drown out our silence.
I have observed people who turn on the television for background noise while paying no attention to what is on, simply because they need the noise. Before texting became limitless (without charge for exceeding monthly allowable characters), I would count the number of people on their way to work in their cars who were NOT on their phones talking with someone, because such were very few. It seemed people could not be alone with themselves, even for a brief time.
Silence is lacking in the world of the everyday. It is too intimidating. In silence we have nothing else to do but contemplate. Maybe that is too hard.
Then there are those anywhere from war torn areas to a mother raising children alone who would give anything just to have a few moments of silence. Time to hear nothing. Just to be.
Another challenge to the Being of Silence today is that anything but the hustle and the bustle (and the noise that accompanies it) is viewed as non-productive and lazy. The idea of balance and symmetry in life between production and creativity on one hand, and rest and rejuvenation on the other, as a way of life, is lost on the “hustle culture” of today. Taking a vacation is a reward for hard work, not the other side of the coin of mental and emotional health. Even worse, embedded in our collective psyche is the idea that retirement is a reward for a lifetime of input into the system. Something that you only should have if you have earned it. Yes, retirement from a lifetime of labor is certainly a just reward to a lifetime of labor. But what does retirement represent? How about freedom to wake up each day and determine yourself, not be determined by your employment? How about the idea of the value of rest and relaxation, for itself, and the pursuit of personal interests?
Why are these things only a reward for the later years of life and not goods that we should experience as a part of life?
(Side note: I find it strange that the same people who idolize and absolutize individual freedom are also remarkably resentful of those who do not, or are perceived to not, “produce” and put into the system. It seems there is no “collective” until they think themselves as having to do something you are not. Let us be clear. The “economy” is the collective today—entirely depersonalized and in which you and I are a commodity).
A world driven by obscene profit for some strives to convince the masses that their only value is their productivity. And “productivity” is defined as contributing to a system from which they are the beneficiaries. Anything other is less than productive or not productive at all.
But what if silence, what if simply doing nothing to contribute to the machine, is something that is necessary to well-being? What if your value as a person demands that you take time away from the noise?
We can’t change the world without changing ourselves. But we can change ourselves even if we can’t change the world. Venture out from the noise of contemporary life. Find silence. I have no prescription as we all have our own circumstances and escaping the noise cannot be achieved in the same way for us all. Another irony is that we escape into noise from the heaviness of life, and we even hide from silence. Yet, it is into silence that we can find the escape we need from the burdens of life. Yes, it can be hard. We have been taught and conditioned that silence is wrong—unless you earned it.
But it is in silence that we can find ourselves. It is in silence that we can finally hear a world far more beautiful and meaningful than the one that is trying to drown it out. Mark C. Taylor is right. Silence, not the mere absence of noise, it is the stillness that sounds and resounds in the deepest depths of our being. Silence can exist without a word. But it is only silence from which word can come forth.