iPod Nation: The Lost Art of Silence

The other day I was stopped at a traffic light and I saw a man who looked to be in his 60s crossing the street with the ubiquitous white cords hanging down from his ears.  iPods are not just for the young any more.  Portable music players have allowed us to fill the last remaining gaps of silence that occur when we are away from TV, radio, stereos and other sound sources.  I’m not sure that that is a good thing.

In generations past, the only way that people could listen to music was to sing or play it themselves or to find or hire a musician.  If they wanted to hear a speech, they had to go to a meeting and listen to the speaker.  As a result, they had lots of silence in their lives.  While working in the fields, in the factory or at home they engaged conversed with each other or worked in silence.  When they traveled (on foot or horseback), they traveled in silence or engaged in conversation with fellow travelers.  My hunch is that they had a lot more silence and also a lot more face to face conversation then we have.

Their regular periods of silence, which we experience only rarely, provided the opportunity for reflection, meditation and prayer.  David was a man after God’s own heart, and I’m sure that an important part of his growth process was the long periods of reflection, prayer and worship that he had on the quite hillsides while he watched the family sheep.  If he had been listening to his iPod during that time, I doubt that he would have turned out to be the spiritual giant that he was.

Flickr photo by artchemist (AWAY)Silence is a very important part of the spiritual life.  In fact, I think that it is impossible to develop significant spiritual depth without adequate times of silence for reflection, prayer and meditation.  But our culture often robs us of that opportunity.  We have grown accustomed to a continual stream of sound and are often uncomfortable with silence.  I realized that whenever I get into my car I have a reflex reaction to immediately turn on the radio, usually set to a news station.  I make the excuse that I need to listen to traffic reports and catch up on world news, but in reality it is simply a habit.  Last spring during Lent I decided to give up listening to the radio when I was in the car, and as a result had more reflective, contemplative drives.  Unfortunately I have returned to the old habit, and probably need to cut back on my radio listening once again.

Why do we seem to need a continual rush of sound?  I have known families that seem to keep their TV on continually whenever they are at home and awake, even if no one is watching it.  As soon as they arrive at home they turn on the TV, and it stays on until the last person goes to bed.  Why do we act like this? Are we uncomfortable with our own thoughts?  Do we need constant sound to escape?  Or have we just grown accustomed to continual noise, and perhaps feel the need for a bit of a rush from continual auditory stimulation?

I love new technology, but we must use it in accordance with our life priorities instead of allowing it to shape our lives of its own accord.  I do own an mp3 player, but I don’t use it very much.  Originally I bought it so that I could listen to Christian music or interesting lectures while I exercise at the gym, but the music that they play there is too loud and I am unwilling to turn my own music up to a high level to drown it out.  Sometimes I wish they would just shut down the music at the gym, but I doubt that they would let me have my way.  Maybe I should invest in some noise canceling head phones.

We could all benefit from unplugging now and then.  Try leaving the car radio/TV/mp3 player off for a few weeks.  Practice the discipline of silence and see what God might be trying to say to you.  If necessary, find some soothing nature sounds or white noise to mask the auditory assault from the world around you. Then look for ways to make the discipline of silence a regular part of your life.

What has been your experience with the practice of silence?  What have you learned, and what challenges have you faced? Share your insights so that we can learn from each other.

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"True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less." -- C. S. Lewis