Before our local Borders bookstore closed I used to wonder why so many students would choose the ‘silence’ of its noisy café to do their homework. Visit your bustling local coffee bar and you will see it full of people who have chosen to do work that they need to concentrate on. Many of us seek wilderness areas to recharge from the noisy and frenetic activity of urban life, but the wilderness is not silent, it’s simply full of a different type of noise and activity. Temples and churches are packed with people noisily praying while seeking the peace and silence of divine grace. Similarly, while at home we often seek ‘silence’ by sitting in a room with the television blaring.
In past eras people fled to convents or monasteries to find silence and solitude but seeking this type of silence is now seen as strange, possibly requiring therapeutic intervention. Either we are not truly seeking silence in the above examples, or the definition of silence in our culture has changed to mean a different type of noise.
Why would we seek a different form of noise unless it’s a form of distraction and if so, what might it be a distraction from? Modern life consists of ceaseless striving and activity and possibly the only way to keep going is to be constantly distracted with new activities. Indeed, it appears that we are in danger of elevating constant activity and distraction into the supreme goal of life, a far cry from the goal of peace and contentment that older and wiser minds sought in the past. However, to follow the latter course would be to admit that there is more to life than striving and activity, something most people are loath to do.
“Silence makes us whole if we let it. Silence helps draw together the scattered and dissipated energies of a fragmented existence.” Thomas Merton