Emergency or blessing? The power of silence
Posted on October 1, 2012
My dad and brother just returned from a fly-in fishing adventure in the Canadian wilderness – fly in, that is, because their outpost camp could only be accessed by floatplane, the sole cabin on a remote lake teeming with walleye.
It was a week of primitive living – no electricity, no indoor toilets, no cell coverage, no television and solar panels that could power six bulbs. They expected to find a short-range radio to use in case of emergency but learned, in its absence, an alert method closer to a smoke signal: Set a big wooden block in the shape of an E on the end of the dock. One side is green for minor emergencies; flip to the other side, which is orange, for serious issues. Then wait for a pilot to take note. Sometimes he’d fly by daily, but it could be a couple days before he’d make the rounds and swoop to your aid.
Vacationers have pulled out the Big E for a number of reasons, revealing varying definitions of emergency. One man had a heart attack. One lost a finger in a hunting accident. One ran out of hot sauce.
But the most fascinating reason to set out the Big E and end a trip early?
The outpost camp was too quiet, they couldn’t stand the silence. No highways, no neighbors and, being so far north, little wildlife, not even a chorus of birds.
One family from Chicago was spooked by the lack of noise. They couldn’t sleep without the hum of a nearby train.
Another group, two buddies who’d gone to grade school through college together, found the hush an impossible chasm to bridge. “We have nothing in common!” they told the pilot, confessing their plan to play the radio the entire drive home. Somehow they’d never before subjected their long friendship to silence.
My brother, meanwhile, relished the quiet, wanted to bottle it up. “I’m not sure you can hear that,” Tony said while recording a video and panning over a lakeside sunset, “but that’s absolute silence.”
He committed the scenes to heart and lens and later hashed them out on keyboard. “That far north, fall days make you feel you can touch the sky,” Tony wrote.
The guys found time for ample father-son discussion: reminiscing about the past, anticipating the future and delighting in their present fortune. But they also absorbed the silence, letting it wash over them and rewire their city circuits.
One of the perils of modern life is the way we’ve built noise into every process, and 20-somethings run the risk of forgetting how things used to be, back when we jogged without an iPod and drove without a talking GPS.
Last week I overhead an 86-year-old Sister of St. Joseph tell a 21-year-old communicators major about the silent retreats she’d made. The college student was positively stumped, fumbling over earnest questions. “What was the purpose of the silence? Did you find it beneficial?”
“Oh, yeah,” the sister said, sharing wisdom that seemed wrapped in both her age and her religious vocation. “We don’t have enough silence in our lives now. There’s a lot to being quiet.”
A lot to it and a lot standing in its way. Silence isn’t just the absence of noise, it’s the absence of idle activity. It’s being unoccupied, empty, attuned to the “still, small voice” of God that Elijah sought in the wind, the earthquake and the fire and heard, finally, in the silence that followed.