A couple of years back I reviewed “Into Great Silence” for Idol Chatter, a several hour film that chronicles the lives of Carthusian monks at Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps. These monks take a vow of silence and so, well, the film about their lives was almost entirely silent in and of itself.
To me, watching what is for all intents and purposes a silent film was an interesting exercise. I am pretty bad at sitting in silence. I like noise–which shouldn’t be that much of a surprise since I live in New York City, where background noise is not only a regular part of life but it is music to my ears. It’s one of the things I love about New York. But I am aware, too, that tolerating silence is a good skill to have, and it’s also a pretty healthy part of life if you can find it.

My angsty relationship with silence, and the fact that needing noise is a rather unhealthy habit for our bodies and minds is what made me curious to read the recent set of book reviews from yesterday’s New York Times about this very topic, “Meditations on Noise” about a trend of new books on the debate between the potential peace and goodness (the righteous kind) of silence and the way we tend to attribute noise with evil and violence:

“Our world is getting louder, a bone-crunching and I.Q.-lowering fact that is explored, in an uncanny convergence, in not one but three new books — Mr. Keizer’s [“The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise”] as well as “Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence” (Scribner), by George Michelsen Foy; and “In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise” (Doubleday), by George Prochnik. More planes crisscross the sky, and more cars hiss by on more roads, these writers observe. More BlackBerrys chirp. Coffee grinders and espresso machines scramble, in cafes, what’s left of our wits. We blot all this out with what may be the most damaging sound of all, the din that pulses from iPod ear buds.”

This all sounds rather horrible doesn’t it?
A couple of the more fascinating points in writer Garner’s article in response to these books include: “noise is among the thorniest class issues of our time, and we tend to utterly ignore its meanings” (from Keizer) and the way we apparently associate noise with helplessness–noise can make us feel helpless.
Yet it is increasingly hard to find pockets of silence in our lives. What does this mean for us? For our health and well-being? Or spiritual lives? Then again, on this note: when I am seeking silence, the first thing I do is walk into a church. Churches are refuges of silence and refuges from the beeps and bleeps in the digital age–it’s still rude, after all, to use your iPhone in a church–isn’t it?

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