And maybe that’s why we fear it. Possibly, the title made you think of the silent treatment we give those who’ve wronged us, but that’s not what this is about. This is about the silence of nature and of the cosmos–the deafening roar of an empty house, how its newly cavernous dens and bedrooms (when we find ourselves alone) press in with a sound more profound than any human voice can render, much less a TV or a radio–the dryer drum spinning incessantly with its metal-on-metal crack of blue jean buttons. Silence is a sound made up of no sound (abstraction is the only way to render this), when we stare into the void and it stares back at us.
But the sound is not altogether hostile. Have you ever taken a long walk in the woods with no agenda–no deer to harvest or no mileage to meet before dark–and found yourself pausing to listen. But to what? Not even the birds are whistling. Maybe the occasional whisper of pine boughs lets drop a message you’d swear is only for you. Maybe you honed in on a specific whisper and called it God.
When we listen to silence, she speaks. I’ve believed this for years now, though I don’t always listen. I’m as susceptible to modern life’s distractions as anybody–the television’s drone is a comfort, however superficially, and my Spotify playlists grow ever more tailored to my musical taste, which makes them hard to ignore when I’m driving here and there.
One thing I do have going for me, however, is an immunity to the need to always be talking. Dr. Joel Fleischman of the nineties show Northern Exposure is a New Yorker transplanted to a backwoods Alaskan town as a way to pay for his expensive education by serving as a general practitioner to the town’s eccentric populace. He misses everything his quiet moments try to teach him, because he won’t shut up. You probably know the type. You may even be the type. If you’re a Fleischman, I implore you to face down the terror of your quiet, alone on a trail or in your living room with TVs and radios and oscillating fans turned off. If you’re not a Fleischman, then face it down anyway. It may accomplish nothing, but in our harried world of ceaseless distraction, amid all the noise grasping at our attention, there’s something noble in being stubbornly quiet, in being quiet on purpose. It’s like holding up a middle finger to those homogenizing forces that would have us sequestered like cattle in pens, oblivious to our impending slaughter. Maybe a voice will speak to you out of the silence.
Fads are often silly from the start, and yet they grow even sillier with age, some of them degrading entirely to pure nonsense (think tight-rolled jeans). One of the sillier fads I embraced as a kid was the lifeguard tank top shirt. It must’ve been about 1984, give or take a year–the start of a period which, spanning the entire second half of the eighties, I’m realizing was seminal in the development of who I am. The seeds of lifelong interests were sown in those roughly five years. Memories I have from that time rank among my favorites. There was a magic in that long corridor between ages eight and thirteen that I didn’t identify then–though I certainly felt it–that is becoming clearer with age. An innocence on the verge of experience. The mystery of girls deepened, resulting in some killer crushes. Music became a vehicle for any emotion or memory I might have had, and it did so with increasing intensity–any music I was into, in fact, from Huey Lewis and the News to 3rd Bass to Guns N’ Roses. What I now know to be a budding self-consciousness, was to me then an expansion of the horizon itself, and the awkwardness and heartbreak were as necessary as the triumphs and thrills.
At that age, I also became increasingly image-conscious, which sounds a little shallow to the present me, but at the time, it somehow fit: blissfully ignorant of social class, the idea I could wear a certain shirt and be part of a certain group held a charming simplicity. I didn’t know any better then; I see the folly of that view only in reflection. What I did know was that the world (for me) was getting bigger; that the teenage years looked exciting and grownup; that things were now either “cool” or not, and to be “cool” was everything. Even if it meant traipsing sunburnt down Panama City Beach in a tank top with the word lifeguard printed on it in red letters.
Imagine if we weren’t predisposed to notions of fate or destiny, or if we didn’t inherit beliefs about divinity from our elders. Imagine if our earthly end was truly a matter of chance or likelihood, and we accepted it as such: an accident or freak illness claims us, or we achieve an age correspondent to our life choices and genetics. None of this idea of unfinished business or unmet purpose in life would influence our feelings about death, that is, if we left no room in our brains for fate or destiny or divine intervention.
It’s difficult–unnatural, even–to trust a phrase like “it was just her time” when faced with an early death. Traffic accidents are the worst, because almost everybody drives, and almost everybody’s loved ones drive, so there’s a pervasive feeling it could happen to anyone at any time (like a terrorist attack or a mass shooting). But if we go a few weeks without news of a fatal car accident, we permit ourselves to slip into a false sense that those things definitely do happen but not to people we know. And just as we’ve settled into our comfortable driving routine, it happens. It may not be someone we know, but it could’ve been, and that’s often enough to unnerve us for a week or two.
Lately a new feeling’s crept in: guilt. When I hear of an early death, I eventually reach a vague sort of spiritual non-geography wherein I wonder, fearfully, if I’ve earned the life I continue to live, while so many who seemed so worthy–young victims of accidents; soldiers; cancer patients–have had theirs cut short. Am I worthy of the years my genetics are likely to grant me? Have I stored enough credits to cover the near-misses I’ve racked up on the interstate? Perhaps the answers to these questions are always both yes and no. None of us is qualified to judge whether a person merits his very life; we can’t know the value of that, not in any quantifiable terms. It lies outside our collective jurisdiction; it resides in a nether region, in the place where the forces both compelling and extinguishing life are found–a region off-limits to our conscious yearning, a land outside our control. I suspect life itself to be the biggest mystery I’ll ever contemplate. Imagine having all the answers–would we want them?