Sunday, December 28, 2008


There are many different types of silence: good silence, bad silence, silences that are meaningful and those that are truly no more than an absence of sound, full silences and empty silences. While being snowed in recently, I noticed an increase in several types of silence, some comfortable and some decidedly uncomfortable. And I began to think about these various silences and how they impact me.

The snowstorm imparted a deep physical silence. The snow itself muffled most of the everyday background noise that we tend to ignore in the course of our daily lives. The shutdown of ground and air traffic filtered out even more of the man-made sounds until one felt quite cocooned in a blanket of quiet. In the beginning it was comforting, even inspiring, like being new born into a new world. After several days, however, this very same silence became oppressive and I found comfort in the sound of the heater kicking on and resorted to electronic noise-makers to keep me company.

So what had changed? The silence remained what it was, mere silence. The duration had lengthened, but not beyond anything I hadn't tolerated deliberately before. I thought about other times when I had purposefully entered into silence for up to seven days, when the silence did not oppress me.

On those occasions, I chose to go into silence as a retreat from the noise and busy-ness of my life. The silence was an escape that I had freely and eagerly embraced. It represented an opportunity for rest, reflection, and a break from the more distasteful parts of my life. Sometimes I was alone and other times I shared the silence with others, but, in every case, the more deeply I allowed myself to sink into the silence the quieter I became internally and my thoughts were freed to gently drift into whatever paths seemed most restful or enlightening.

These planned forays into the depths of silence fed me in ways that constant chatter simply could not. In fact, after extended periods in silence, I found re-entry into the so-called real world to be extremely jarring and would find myself very quickly overloaded by the stimulation. I had to plan gradual re-introduction of activities for awhile.

Given my appetite for extended silence, I was surprised when I found myself uncomfortable with the silence of being snowbound. Not only was the world itself seemingly mute, but my phone took that opportunity to fail and I couldn't get out to replace it for 3 days.

I think my discomfort came from a couple of different sources. The first being that this silence was unplanned and of unknown duration. The first 4 days were enjoyable for me. I blissfully spent my days reading and knitting, admiring the snow falling outside and quite content with the reduction in responsibilities to be met. Then, sometime during day 4, I began to feel stifled by the very same silence that I had previously savored. It came to represent isolation and loneliness for me. The silence had to be broken, even shattered.

I don't think I was alone in this. While trudging a mile to the store and then back again, there were several people risking slips and falls to be outside, some were even skiing down the street. Everyone seemed friendly and eager to connect with others. I met neighbors that I hadn't even seen in the entire three years I've lived here. And the break in the silence enabled me to remain in the silence again when the snow began to fall once more.

The second source of my discomfort seems to have been that I am simply out of practice with being in silence, externally or internally. The hurry, struggle and chaos of the last few years left me unprepared for both the gifts and the challenges that silence brings. My muscles have gone flabby which means I should probably make plans to exercise my internal silence more in the new year. It is time to re-develop my skills in just being instead of doing. I've allowed myself to fall prey to the misconception that activity endows meaning and purpose.

Despite succumbing to a bit of isolation craziness, I think I've learned the lesson that the silence of the snowstorm had to give me. Now to see if I can retain it through the thaw.


mehitabel said...

I think you hit it when you said it was unplanned, of unknown duration--in other words, out of control. It's not easy to cope with isolation unless it's a chosen path. You'll remember this, and learn from it. Great post!

Carmen said...

I agree that anything of our own choosing is bearable, after all we chose it. But once it's left to the universe to decide well that's another story. Good post Nat.