The problem with silence

I have a confession to make. It’s nothing scandalous. Nothing I need to go to the confession box about, but it’s a fear I used to have — a fear that interfered with my education. You might even call it a phobia, as it was rather irrational. Okay. Are you ready? I used to be afraid of the library. It may not be that exciting of a revelation, but it’s true. I couldn’t sit in the library without becoming an ADHD kid itching for recess. I would fidget and wiggle and be utterly uncomfortable. The fact that so many people were in one room all together, not talking was irksome. I just could not deal with it. People are social creatures, so how can we all be sitting in a room together with no one speaking. Eventually, I learned to appreciate the library for its ability to make me focus. Sometimes I can even sit there without my iPod to keep me company. It’s been a long road to accept the quiet, but I’m almost OK with it now. But why is it so hard to sit in silence? What keeps me from being able to allow pauses in a conversation or pauses at home without some form of media being blasted into my brain?

I went out for coffee with a friend recently. Someone I haven’t seen in a while and we sat there interrupting each other, talking over each other and generally doing a terrible job of listening — or a terrible job at reflecting the fact that we were listening. I am the worst at this. And in reality I was the one interrupting her most of the time. So why do I feel the need to talk instead of listen? Why can’t I accept a pause in conversation as natural rather than as a sign of the apocalypse? OK, apocalypse is a little extreme, maybe, but I certainly avoid that small moment of silence like accepting it would be the end of the world. It feels like a weakness not to be able to maintain a conversation in such a way that there are no pauses. We’re scared of silence.

Most of us were scared of the dark when we were little. Maybe in a way some of us still are. Your imagination soars when the lights go out and you’re never sure what might be hiding in the shadows. It’s this way with silence too, I think. You never know what the other person is thinking unless they say it. It scares us when we don’t know what someone else is thinking. We of course assume they are thinking about us, and not knowing what they are thinking kills us. Awkward silence is just that — awkward. We laugh about it, talk about the lulls in conversation to avoid having lulls in conversation, spit out stories or poor jokes to fill the space and just generally dodge any chance at that gap between words.

At one point or another I’m sure you’ve been home alone. Do you turn on the TV, the radio, your iPod? Have you ever just sat there for a while, only to hear a floor board creak and jump with a squeal? Why is silence so hard to deal with? We’re scared of the world we live in — scared by the images we see on the news or in movies. We flood ourselves with all forms of media, and so when the music dies down and the TV fades, our minds begin to race with all we have fed it that day.

Do you feel as tired as I do most days of the week? I’m so over-stimulated by the amount of media I expose myself to that I can’t settle my mind when I do finally go to bed at the end of my day. I spend so much time texting, surfing, watching TV, Facebooking, emailing and chatting. I find that I usually talk about issues around me and never actually sit and calm down enough to search for the solutions. Instead I’d rather complain, hear the sound of my own voice and fill the world with just a bit more noise to make me feel comfortable.

Instead of becoming providers of a listening ear we pay for people to listen to us — it’s called therapy. We are in desperate need for quiet but instead we install TVs in our SUVs and implant a Bluetooth headset in our ears. We’re afraid of the quiet like a child fears the monsters under the bed. What monsters await us in the silence? Why are we so afraid to just be?