For the past few weeks I’ve been taking late evening walks. I leave the house somewhere around 10:15, and for the next 45 to 60 minutes I might walk the neighborhood streets, but sometimes I venture off the roads onto the golf course that winds its way through our community. The lights from neighboring homes and the glow of the street lamps quickly fade as I follow a fairway to a distant green. Soon I’m surrounded by stillness and the silence of the night. Periodically, it will be compromised by the muffled sounds of a truck on a distant highway, the hum of jet engines thousands of feet above, or a dog barking in the distance. But it is while taking these walks that I have increasingly come to understand something that has been there all along, but I was simply too busy and/or preoccupied to realize; the sounds of silence.
That’s an odd phrase isn’t it? For those of us who grew up in the 60’s it is forever linked to Simon and Garfunkel’s masterpiece, “The Sounds of Silence”, which, according to Garfunkel, speaks to the inability of people to emotionally communicate with each other. But it was not a song from my youth that initiated these evening sojurns, rather a work by famed Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge entitled, Silence: In the Age of Noise. The NY Times describes Erling Kagge as “a philosophical adventurer or perhaps an adventurous philosopher”. In 1990 he became one of two people to reach the North Pole totally unsupported. In 1993 he completed the first unsupported and sole expedition (without radio) to the South Pole, and in 1994 summited Mt. Everest becoming the first person to complete the Three Poles Challengeon foot. Kagge’s extended time with silence did not make him an authority, rather it stimulated his curiosity, and his book becomes the vehicle through which he attempts to answer three questions:
What is silence?
Where is it?
Why is it more important now than ever?
Most of us think of silence as the antithesis to the noisy world within which we live. We are inundated with noise, some selected and some forced. Technology has assured that we can maintain a connection, and that the type of noise we wish to hear is always available. Reflecting on his solo trek to the South Pole, Kagge shares, “The silence through those 50 days and nights became my best friend.” Silence has its own language; and that language is our own voice! It is a voice that forces us to look in the mirror and see ourselves for what we are, and what we can be. However, it is for that reason that many fear it. They busy themselves with tasks, deadlines and other activities in an effort to avoid being present in their own lives and hearing the voice of “an elusive friend”; one which will always share the truth.
Kagge’s journeys to some of the most desolate places on earth gave him a perspective on silence that few can understand. “We live in an age of noise. Silence beyond ourselves is almost extinct.” Likewise many are challenged to find their silence within. Rather than holding still and shutting out the world, we compromise our own silence with music, texting and allowing thoughts to haphazardly fill our minds. The reality is, finding silence is a choice. It doesn’t require an expedition to a remote location. Whether we are taking a shower, sitting in the middle of a park or simply taking a walk, each of us can choose to experience the silence that will enable us to grow in gratitude, wonder, self-knowledge and so much more. We must simply be willing to listen to the words we share with ourselves.
Perhaps more than at any other time, silence is more important now than ever. Why? Because silence is about rediscovering, through pausing, the things that bring us joy. When we consider the past few months, joy is not the first word that comes to mind. Our reality says otherwise; it has been a difficult period, but there have been joyful moments both collective and individually. Personal joy is discovered by pausing; something we rarely do. In our fast-paced world most of us remain always accessible (via phone, text or email). As Kagge puts it, “I become engulfed in my smartphone and enslave myself to a tablet – as a consumer and at times as a producer. I am constantly interrupted. I rummage around in a world that has little to do with me. At times it feels like trying to find my way through a fog on a mountaintop only to find myself walking in circles. The goal is to be busy and effective, nothing else.” It becomes the pause, the time in which we find the silence that speaks to us of those things that bring us joy, that bring us happiness, that bring us peace. These are the moments that help us keep our sanity in a world that, at times, borders on the insane.
We do not need to walk to the South Pole or climb Mt. Everest to experience the sounds and benefits of silence. It can be found when you wake in the morning, when you watch your children lost in a television program, as you drink a cup of coffee or when you take that late night walk. It might be for one minute or it could be an hour, but this inner silence won’t just happen. You have to look for it, listen for it, and most important, be open to what you hear; for it could be on this journey that you discover the voice that has been there all along.