Wednesday, May 18, 2011


There's a "fill-in-the-blanks" conspiracy out there, a plot to cover every square inch of every possible surface with a mark claiming it as either the property or the advertising medium of some enterprise or another. If it's not already there, we'll soon see advertising tattooed on people's faces!

And, as if this visual scourge weren't bad enough, the offensive has also taken aim on audible open space.

In this era of $10 million-a-minute Super Bowl spots and ever- more- aggressive, ever- more- creative advertising blitzes, air time is money. Those nice quiet spells sitting in a theater, waiting for the feature to begin…gone. Being able to concentrate on your shopping list while negotiating the aisles at the super market…nope. Escaping the blitz on "commercial-free" public media…forget about it.

  Silences are the driving force behind real dialog.

Furthermore, this saturation of every possible medium with some kind of message seems to have spilled over into how we human animals communicate with each other. To be fair, we already seem to have a natural discomfort with silences in our conversation. But have you noticed that, between this aversion and the aggression of sheer, blatant self-promotion, it's often hard for one without an agenda to get in a word edgewise?

In fact, it's gone beyond just losing the silent intervals in conversation; the new norm seems to be for all the tracks of a conversation to run simultaneously. In Minnesota Public Radio's just completed membership drive, for example, it struck me how this multi-tracking banter has become the norm for these fundraising affairs. The same with those inane morning TV talk shows; everyone's talking over each other. Do they know something we don't? Is that really what they think we want to hear?

I've only recently begun to articulate what it is that bothers me so much about this trend. I love silences. Not necessarily silence in general, though I enjoy that too, but intervals of silence, pauses, a little breathing room here and there in a conversation.

Silences are the driving force behind real dialog. Not only do they indicate that the speaker is thinking—a good thing, don't you think?—they also give the listener a chance to enter the conversation. And even when it's just one-way communication—such as a speech or a lecture—those little breaks allow listeners a chance to begin processing what they're hearing, time, if you will, to respond mentally.

   It was as if he'd intentionally allowed those 
   intervals for the thoughts to complete 
   their flow from him, transfer and take root 
   in my consciousness.

I recently heard, for the first time, the voice of the astute author and spiritual guide, Eckhart Tolle. I was struck right away by how soft-spoken he is. But what drew me in even more were the lavish periods of silence he welcomes into his delivery—intervals of sometimes ten to fifteen seconds.

I suppose that, in some kinds of conversation, that sort of void might have made me uncomfortable. But, in this case, I found myself basking in those silences. You might say I found as much of a message in the spaces between his thoughts as in the thoughts themselves. It was as if he'd intentionally allowed those intervals for the thoughts to complete their flow from him, transfer and take root in my consciousness.

I also experience the spiritual richness of silence in church, in my men's group or at any gathering where time is devoted to quiet prayer or reflection. There's something so powerful and moving about a group of people together engaged in that kind of transcendent dialog. In those instances, it's even more clear to me how much we need silence in order for our own souls to both listen and speak to us.

Though we think of Nature—or more particularly, wilderness—as being rich with silence, this is rarely the case. I guess it's just that, unlike the background noise of our workaday worlds, the ambient sounds of nature are something we choose, and therefore welcome. Perhaps the whisper of pines, the gurgling of water, the jabber of birds, seem like silence because something deep inside tells us they belong.

    The next sound to enter that empty space in 
    my soul was the one that woke me the next 
    morning: the electrifying howls of a pack of 
    wolves from across the bay.

I've experienced utter silence just a few times in my life. The most memorable was one night while I was on a solo canoe trip deep in northern Minnesota's vast Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. As I lay in my sleeping bag one still, starry night, I realized I couldn't make out a sound of any kind. Not a breeze, not the smallest wave breaking, not even the ubiquitous, mournful plea of a distant loon. The silence was so profound that I experienced it as a thundering reverberation, perhaps a response my brain devised as its own nervous response to such an unaccustomed lack of stimulation.

I eventually fell back asleep, unaware at the time that the sound vacuum I'd experienced was to serve a higher purpose, to make room in my spirit for an even greater wonder that was to come. In fact, the very next sound to enter that empty space in my soul was the one that woke me the next morning: the electrifying howls of a pack of wolves from across the bay.

 So, what's the balance of noise and silence in your life? How do you experience the silences? Do you find yourself wanting more?

Music and silence combine strongly because music is done with silence, and silence is full of music. -- MARCEL MARCEAU


Meg said...

Jeff, absolutely loved this! I too, have come to love Silence, which used to terrify me. I grew up in a family where the TV was ever-present background music, and people talked at and over each other instead of with each other. My appreciation of Silence came hand-in-hand with learning to also love spending time alone, something else that used to scare me to death. I used to have every minute of every day packed with plans and appointments, for fear of being left alone with my own thoughts. Today, most often, that is a very peaceful experience. I am reminded of Simon & Garfunkle's "Sounds of Silence"...what a great song! Once again, another lovely, thoughtful essay! THANKS!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Dear Meg -- I appreciate you and your support so much! I guess I had a different family culture -- lots of silences. Good for you for breaking out of the "fill every pause" syndrome! Sounds of Silence, yes, a great song and a great reference.

Post a Comment

Thanks for visiting One Man's Wonder! I'd love to hear your comments on this post or my site in general.
And please stay in touch by clicking on "Subscribe" below.