I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s charming and delightful book on the English language, The Mother Tongue, and ran across this delicious tidbit:
English speakers dread silence. We are all familiar with the uncomfortable feeling that overcomes us when a conversation palls. Studies have shown that when a pause reaches four seconds, one or more of the conversationalists will invariably blurt something — a fatuous comment on the weather, a startled cry of “Gosh, is that the time?” — rather than let the silence extend to a fifth second.
Why are we afraid of that fifth second of silence? What, exactly, are we afraid of? It is extremely unlikely that anyone present will spontaneously die, or go crazy, or get violent. Likewise, no one is going to laugh at us, criticize us, or reject us. In other words, the silence is safe. When, then, do we dread it?
And should anyone think Bryson is being melodramatic here, I agree with him wholeheartedly. We call such silences “awkward” and “uncomfortable.” We say they are “deafening” (an oxymoron if ever there were one). It seems that our fear of social silence is on a par with a child’s fear of the dark.
And there may be something to that analogy.
George Hoffman writes about “Our Fear of Silence” from a psychological perspective, noting that “the fear of silence is a learned behavior” which can be unlearned. He cites studies that show how uncomfortable college students are with silence — not surprising, given that the lives of youth today are immersed in a world shaped by television, the internet, and portable devices. As Hoffman notes, “If background noise has always been with us, it’s no wonder we can become so uncomfortable when it’s taken away.”
But I think the fear of silence predates the electronic noise of the last 100 years. Even before the rise of the mass media, we human beings have lived in the presence of another kind of noise: internal chatter. What Buddhists call “the monkey mind” or Christian contemplatives have labeled logismoi — the deadly thoughts. We are “distracted from distraction by distraction,” as T. S. Eliot wryly put it — and while external noisemakers like iTunes or Fox news just pile on the distractions, the root cause of both our lack of attentiveness and our fear of silence is the internal noise of our anxious minds.
In chapter 10 of The Cloud of Unknowing we find the suggestion that our minds are restless and prone to distraction because of “the painful effect of original sin.” Which is another way of saying it is not something we can control. Indeed, the brain is a “thought-generator,” working constantly, similar to how the heart ceaselessly keeps pumping life-giving blood throughout the body. A brain without thought is dead (for even a sleeping brain generates dreams). So part of the reason why we fear silence so much is because we have minds that keep trying to shield us from it.
On Patheos recently I’ve written about how contemplative prayer is not about “emptying the mind” (which is impossible). But it is about silence, and so we learn to hold the noises in our lives — whether external or internal — with non-attachment, so that we might learn to pay attention to the silence that is always there, hidden just beneath the din of the screeching monkey. We rest our attention on a prayer word, or a verse of scripture, the Jesus Prayer, an icon, or even just our breath, which encourages “the monkey” to calm down a bit, allowing us to notice the silence that is always luminously present within us — even if we only catch glimpses of it, between the chattering monkey or the soothing rhythm of our prayer word.
I compared our social fear of silence to a child’s fear of the dark. When we give a child a nightlight, isn’t that just like chattering away (i.e., creating noise)? The light masks the darkness, and the noise (whether of thoughts or something external) masks the silence. Yet those are not solutions to the fear, they are merely delay-tactics to allow the frightened person enough time to breathe through their fear and relax. Sooner or later, the child must face the darkness and learn to rest in it. Likewise, we will all face silence at some point (even if it’s only at the hour of our death). Contemplative prayer teaches us to befriend silence rather than to fear it. And this is the pathway to spiritual growth.
What’s important to keep in mind is that the silence is always there. Just because we are distracted, or even afraid of it, doesn’t make it go away. Silence is polite: it doesn’t force itself on us. It waits until we choose to give it our attention. But when we do, we find it is not so scary after all. It is vast, open, luminous, and present. If we let it, silence will teach us — although at a level deeper than words. It also will usher us into that place we all hunger for: the presence of God.