If you tuned in for last week’s column, you might remember that I shared some thoughts about the power of silence to help heal what ails us.
Through a happy accident, I’d been on my son’s middle school campus one recent morning when the student body observed its daily moment of silence. I joined in and felt better for doing so, which led me to write about the special ability of quiet to connect us with something larger than ourselves.
George Prochnik recently touched on a similar theme in a New York Times commentary. If we can’t hear ourselves think, Prochnik argued, then we won’t be able to summon the wisdom that a strong country needs.
“Is quiet a precondition of democracy? The Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter suggested it might be,” Prochnik told readers. He mentioned Frankfurther’s observation that as the Founding Fathers worked to create the U.S. Constitution in Independence Hall, laborers covered the street outside with earth so that the great men’s deliberations wouldn’t be disrupted by traffic noise.
Can we imagine today’s political leaders taking such pains to limit noisy distractions while they consider the course of the nation?
Prochnik’s essay reminded me that he had thought about quiet in a larger way in his 2010 book, “In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise,” which has a place of honor on my living room shelf. I’ve been revisiting Prochnik’s book in these early days of autumn and trying to reconnect with the promise of silence as a daily resource. It’s a hard thing to do in a day full of cell phones, 500 cable channels, and the music that my two teenagers generously share with me.
But rereading Prochnik encouraged me to think that we can find a little quiet just about anywhere if we look hard enough. He’s even discovered silence in his neighborhood in Brooklyn, a place not known for its reticence. Prochnik writes with affection about the leafy street and small garden that offer him “a haven of quiet in a relentless city.” But he worries that this kind of retreat is endangered.
“The only way out of this bind is to make the pursuit of silence itself a more broadly inviting prospect,” he writes. “The more opportunity there is for people who are being increasingly excluded from silence to feel its influence, the more chance there is that silence will begin to confer its singular graces on society at large.”
Gordon Hempton makes much the same point in “One Square Inch of Silence,” a book published shortly before Prochnik’s. The thought of not one, but two books about quiet getting into print gives me hope that this topic has some legs. As Hempton wisely notes, silence “is not the absence of something but the presence of everything.”