I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet, strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers.—Khalil Gibran
Among the list of people whom I can no longer find, and may well be deceased, is an associate professor of music by the name of Robert Woods. Dr. Woods was a rather unassuming individual from my student perspective, but in January of 1982, while teaching a course in electronic music, he taught us a very valuable lesson about the importance of silence. His assignment sounded simple enough: find a place with absolute silence, and see how long you can stand it. Being cocky college students, we laughed. It was J-term and the campus was more than half empty. Finding a quiet spot would be easy.
But Dr. Woods didn’t say find a quiet spot. His instructions were to find a place absolutely void of sound and when class convened the next day we shared our stories of just how difficult it had been to complete the assignment. So difficult, in fact, that I was the only one who had actually found a place of complete silence: the morgue.
I worked part time in a funeral home. After everyone else had left for the evening, I went into the empty embalming room, which was totally sealed, and shut the door. The experience might have been eery had I not been accustomed to being in the room. There was nothing in there that would make a sound without human intervention, or so I thought. As I settled in on a stool, I soon realized that the fluorescent bulbs were humming. One wouldn’t have noticed under normal conditions, but when all other distractions were removed, there it was: a low but distinct hum. There was only one thing to do: turn off the lights.
Yes, sitting along in a sealed embalming room in the dark is eery. Worse than the dark, though, was the complete silence. Not a sound. I not only could hear my own breathing, but my heart beat sounded louder the longer I sat there. I’d shift my weight on the stool and the shuffle of my slacks against the metal was loud. I cracked my knuckles and it sounded like fireworks. With its ceramic tile floor and walls, the acoustics of the room amplified any sound, but the only sound was that of me, being alive. I stayed for what felt like an eternity then felt my way along the wall back to the door. I had been in the room a mere four minutes.
Dr. Woods’ point had been that silence is a necessary part of music and he wanted us to experience silence so we would appreciate the presence of rests amidst a flurry of sound. Music, he explained, finds its life not in the cacophony of notes and sounds as we might layer them together, but in those brief moments of silence, the rests, especially when unexpected, that allow us to catch our breath.
I can’t say I learned a great deal from the remainder of that class. Electronic music was still finding its roots and our resources, which had been borrowed, were painfully limited. Dr. Woods soon left for a teaching position at a university that appreciated his forward thinking and we went on to do other things that had no relationship to our degrees. What stuck, though, was that very important lesson in the virtue of silence.
Life since that moment in 1982 has only gotten increasingly louder. The reason I get up at 4:00 AM every morning to write these articles is because, in relative silence I can think, put words in order, consider what phrasing best communicates an idea, and pull together stories that are, hopefully, worth reading. Outside this morning, the wind is literally howling and the heater is struggling to keep our house warm, but in the absence of children laughing, music playing, or the whole world trying to talk at the same time, there is a peacefulness that gives life amidst the cacophony.
One of the reasons I so dislike presidential election years is the amount of overwhelming noise they generate. Every candidate, especially at this point of the approaching primaries, is shouting as loud as they can, trying to shove their message through the eye of the needle that is our attention span. Add to that all the sports, not just the impending Super Bowl, but all the cricket and the soccer and the basketball going on around the world. There are ads, and movies, and trailers, and … I think someone has a field trip today but I don’t remember which child. Then, there’s laundry and dishes and I suppose I should plan something for dinner because people do need to eat every once in a while. Pictures to schedule and take and edit. Conversations about books and an upcoming deadline and no I’ve not even started that outline. Did I remember to order underwear? I hope so, because I don’t have time to go out and buy more. Rumors that Sarah Burton is leaving Alexander McQueen and going to Dior, are they true? Men’s fashion in Paris, then couture, then, SHOWTIME, a month of ready-to-wear. And …
So. Much. Noise.
Learning the virtuosity of silence doesn’t happen by accident. Too many people ignore the rest signs. We need those quiet places; in our lives, in our thoughts, in our schedules, in our creativity. We need space to take a breath so that we don’t choke on our own lifelong diatribes.
May you find that moment, if not now, soon, where you can experience the virtue of silence. May you find Peace. And thank you, Dr. Woods, wherever you are.