The Freedom of Silence*
By D.C. McAllister
All I could hear was the clock ticking quietly at the end of the hall and the soft hum of the air conditioner. I stretched out under the crisp covers of the sofa bed and let my mind wander.
I could always do that at my grandparents’ house in Beaufort, South Carolina. It was set far back from the bustle of the road, nestled near a marsh with still waters and thick-trunked trees, standing like aged sentinels, branches stretched high and covered in clumps of gray Spanish moss.
At night, I would imagine monsters living in the marsh, creeping up the lawn, watching us as we drew the curtains. I would peek out the window to see if any of the shadows moved among the blinking fireflies. I often thought I saw them—the dreaded marsh creatures—and I’d quickly close the curtains, withdrawing back into the safety of the room’s bright lamps.
I can remember every detail of my grandparents’ home – the enormous azalea bushes that surrounded the house and blossomed into a kaleidoscope of color in the spring. The sloping yard in the back and the sprawling garden of tomatoes that grew on six-foot-high posts. It was my grandfather’s pride and joy.
I can still picture him walking up from his garden, bow-legged, hat sloping over his wrinkled face, his overalls covered in dirt, and buckets in both hands loaded with huge, red tomatoes. “Best batch yet,” he’d say, grinning proudly. I’ve never seen or tasted “maters” like those since. They were sweet, juicy, and firm. Nature’s candy, Granddad would say. We ate them with every meal—fried tomatoes and eggs at breakfast, BLTs at lunch, and sliced tomatoes at supper with their juices running into the gravy that we soaked up with homemade biscuits.
The Sounds of Silence
The entrance to the property was a driveway paved with bleached shells that crunched as the car rolled over them. When I was young, I’d take my brother’s dump trucks and sit among the shells in the hot summer sun, hauling them to and fro. The only sounds I heard were the birds overhead, the hum of mosquitoes in my ears, and the bubbling stream of thoughts in my head. For hours I would stay there, the sun toasting my shoulders as I’d create whole towns with those shells.
When I wasn’t playing in the driveway, I’d crawl on an old tire swing hanging from a pecan tree that dominated the front yard. My grandfather often told us the story of how, when he was young, his entire family lived off of that pecan tree for months during the Great Depression. Just pecans and well water, both of which he attributed to a lifetime of good health.
I would gather up pecans from the ground, stuff my pockets full, and take them to my grandfather. I’d watch in silence, captivated, as he cracked the shells and separated the halves without breaking them. It was a skill I never mastered.
Every morning, my grandmother would get up before dawn. I could hear her hushed movements from where I was sleeping in the living room. A strip of yellow light would press in under the pocket door that led to the kitchen.
All the doors in their house were pocket doors that slid in and out of the wall. I’d hear that sound in the silence of the night, the sliding of a door, opening then closing as someone went to the bathroom and returned to his room. Then everything would be quiet again, with just the hum of the air and the tick of the clock.
As soon as I saw the light under the door, I’d crawl out of bed. Blurry eyed and rumpled, I’d shuffle into the kitchen where my grandmother was making grits and baking biscuits. She’d smile when she saw me, and tell me to sit at the counter while she made me some coffee.
It was the only time I ever had coffee when I was young. The smell of it filled the kitchen, warm and toasty. I’d climb up the stool and sit at the counter while she poured me a cup and let me put in as many sugar cubes as I wanted. I’d sip on the sweet, steamy coffee and watch her make breakfast. The only sounds were the clinking of the dishes, the stirring of a wooden spoon against a cast-iron pot, and my grandmother humming a hymn.
An Endless Stream of Noise
I miss those moments. I miss the quiet, the stillness. I’ve realized recently how I’ve allowed too much noise to penetrate my life. I think that’s true for many of us. Our world has become a noisy swarm of voices and distractions. Very few of us spend time alone with our own thoughts. There’s the radio, television, computer, phones, iPods, Apple watches, all demanding our attention, all invading our private, quiet moments. Notifications, alerts, emails, texts, Tweets, bings, dings, and rings.
Constantly, our stillness is broken. It’s not only audio noise, but visual. Our eyes, always scanning the words of others, the feeds, the posts, the pictures from Instagram, the constant stream of information bombarding us from every direction. We can’t even go to a restaurant or a doctor’s office anymore without a television blasting in the corner, music blaring, voices always forcing us to listen, to turn from our own thoughts, our own reflections, and listen to others.
Our attention is divided, frayed, to the point of not paying attention at all. We can’t even remember most details about our daily lives because we’re so distracted by all the noise.
The memories most clear to me are the ones formulated in quiet. I can still picture my grandparents’ living room, the painting of a waterfall, the cabinet full of crystal, the heavy beige drapes that darkened the room, the chalkboard in the kitchen with a list of appointments, the fig tree at the corner of the house—the one where I found an Easter egg that had been missed from the year before.
Today, I can barely remember what my friend’s house looks like, where I parked my car, or what I need to get from the store. It’s not just age, but a lack of focus as I’m constantly distracted by noise.
Noise Immunizes Us to Privacy
I recently tried to go the entire day in silence. No podcasts, no radio, no iPhone searches, no television. Just me and my own thoughts. It was harder than I thought it would be. I found myself getting anxious and wanting to reach for my phone or turn on the computer. I was uncomfortable not hearing the sounds of other voices. I had lost, to a degree, the ability to self-reflect, to be still.
I knew at that moment that the insightful words written in the 1960s by Vance Packard and Rick Perlstein in “The Naked Society” were true. They wrote that the idea that one can—or should try to—lead a private, unfettered life is losing much of its force, and that intruding noise is a major culprit. Millions of people, they said, are developing an addiction to noise.
“The psychical and physiological damage being done by the fairly continual barrage of sound that reaches millions of citizens probably cannot be accurately assessed for at least a decade,” they wrote.
“But the surmises are beginning. Psychiatrists are suggesting that a heavy intake of noise can create the kind of tensions leading to emotional disturbance. Audiologist Joseph Krimsky has stated that the capacity of noise to annihilate privacy is not only aggravating life’s stresses but can produce pathological changes in the auditory system and reduce ‘sensitiveness to the nuances of sound and music.’”
People are finding it increasingly difficult to be alone with their own thoughts. Packard and Perlstein made this observation in the 1960s; imagine what they would think with the endless onslaught of noise we have today. Whether it’s at home or school, children spend very little time in quiet, alone with their own thoughts or reading a book that helps them broaden their imaginations. Instead, they watch television, play games, sit in front on the computer, or talk endlessly with friends on the phone, texting, or social media.
Even schools push children to be extroverts, failing to value moments of quiet reflection as students are pushed from one social setting to another. Often children become anxious if they’re not distracted. They don’t feel comfortable with themselves, and they don’t know how to think their own thoughts, making them highly susceptible to the influence of others. This is true not only of children but also of adults. With the increase of noise has come an increase in anxiety and degraded sense of self.
The Hive Mind Erodes Individuality
Is it any wonder that anxiety levels have increased? Could it be that we are creating a pathological society that is incapable of being alone? Is the lack of privacy—of having our own thoughts without being constantly invaded with others’ thoughts—eroding our individuality? It seems so, as we’re all being pressed to be a part of the hive mind, to share our thoughts and listen to the thoughts of others without having much time to process and reflect on who we are as individuals. The result is a society more like a Borg collective than a healthy community of individuals.
We are distracted from ourselves.
Knowing oneself is integral to living a free, independent, and happy life. We cannot know ourselves if we are constantly bombarded with noise from others. We can’t think, reflect, imagine, and dream. We are distracted from ourselves. The result is chaos in the mind, unsettled emotions, a life controlled by external forces, loss of privacy, and generalized anxiety. When that happens, we are no longer free.
In Silence, We Are Free to Think and Dream
One of my favorite passages in the Bible is “Be still and know that I am God.” To commune with our Creator, we must be still, be silent, and listen. The same is true in knowing ourselves. We must be still to know who we truly are, not just apprehend but intimately know and be aware of who we are.
It’s in the quiet moments that we converse with our authentic selves. It’s in the privacy of our own minds that we order our thoughts, formulate our independent views, discover our fears and our joys, grapple with our weaknesses, realize our potential, and experience the wonder of our imagination. None of this is possible when our minds are scattered by noise and controlled by others.
I can still picture sunlight flickering through the leaves of an oak tree in my grandparents’ yard as I sat, staring up at the branches. The moss swayed slowly in the humid breeze and squirrels chattered in the treetop. I imagined many things during those moments, as my grandfather cracked pecans on the porch behind me and my grandmother sat in her swing, fanning away the heat of the day.
I thought of school and talking to boys. I imagined my next piano concert and fighting my nerves. I pictured playing soccer and scoring goals to the cheers of crowds. I wondered why I was so insecure and how I could be stronger, more like my mother who always seemed able to talk to anyone. I felt bad about how I treated a friend and thought of ways to make it up to her.
I wondered what I would do when I was older. Would I become a doctor? A lawyer? Or would I become a writer, telling stories like Ray Bradbury or C.S. Lewis? What kind of magical worlds could I create, what kind of wonders could I make real, bringing my imaginings to life for others to enjoy? I didn’t know, but my thoughts were free to wander, to discover my dreams.
Eventually, the shadows lengthened, the sunlight faded, and the treetops darkened. I returned to the house and helped my grandmother with dinner, slicing up tomatoes as she poured the iced tea. We didn’t talk much. We didn’t need to. We both enjoyed our own thoughts and each other’s company. When I was with my grandmother, I felt no anxiety, no stress—only peace and quiet, outside and within.
Avoiding the Silence!
The Upper Hand of Introverts*