Too Loud

Seeking quiet in a busy world? Here’s a better idea.

Our world has gotten rather noisy. And in the midst of the din, humans are rebelling. They want silence, stillness, peace.

Thus Chloe Schama writes at the New Republic that “Silence Is Now a Luxury Product”—one that people will pay a premium to procure: “The search for silence might be the extreme extension of the urge to shed modern life’s ‘noisy’ baggage … As Jonathan Sterne, author of The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, put it to me, silence has become something like a metaphor for a ‘utopian state, much like the empty inbox.’”

In his New York Times piece “The Quiet Ones,” Tim Kreider writes, “the volume [of life] has incrementally risen, the imbecilic din encroaching on one place after another — mass transit, waiting rooms, theaters, museums, the library… ” Kreider seeks his quiet in the Amtrak’s Quiet Car, the “last bastion of civility and calm.”

Kreider and Schama speak of cacophonous noise as if it’s something new, and of silence as if it belongs to bygone days. But dissonance has existed, at least to some extent, throughout human existence. One need only try sleeping in the mountains to discover the commotion that chorusing crickets can muster. Cattle and chickens usually keep farms boisterous and lively.

So clamor isn’t new. Rather, it’s the nature of our sound that has changed. Noise has become less human, less personal. The click-clack and roar of a subway, rush of city traffic and incessant beeping of horns are still relatively foreign to human ears.

In the classic children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster describes the impression of a silent landscape. His protagonist, Milo, passes through the Valley of Sound during his adventures in a fantastical land. Yet in the Valley of Sound, things are not as they should be:

“The wind no longer rustled the leaves, the car no longer squeaked, and the insect no longer buzzed in the fields. Not the slightest thing could be heard, and it felt as if, in some mysterious way, a switch had been thrown and all the sound in the world had been turned off at the same instant …

‘How dreadful,’ thought Milo as he slowed down the car.”

Why did the Valley of Sound descend into silence? An inhabitant explains the silence to Milo later on in the chapter:

“Slowly at first, and then in a rush, more people came to settle here and brought with them new ways and new sounds, some very beautiful and some less so. But everyone was so busy with the things that had to be done that they scarcely had time to listen at all. And, as you know, a sound which is not heard disappears forever and is not to be found again. People laughed less and grumbled more, sang less and shouted more, and the sounds they made grew louder and uglier. It became difficult to hear even the birds or the breeze, and soon everyone stopped listening for them.”

According to Juster, sound became ugly when people were too distracted and busy to listen properly, or to seek out beautiful sound. The din stemmed from their lack of mindfulness. The Soundkeeper brought utter silence to her valley as punishment for the people’s carelessness. Whereas our humans see silence as a luxury, the Valley of Sound’s residents floundered in their hushed prison.

The problem with silence is that it is often solitary. It makes communication and community impossible. This does not make it bad—but it makes it improper for frequent use. Humans were made to live in community, and community is noisy. The person who constantly craves quiet will find him or herself alone, and vexed with any interruption that breaks in upon their solace. In Kreider’s story, a man reprimands him for typing too loudly. It’s interesting to see how our desire for quiet becomes progressively exclusive.

Horrified by the Valley of Sound’s involuntary deafness, Milo goes to the Soundkeeper’s castle, and steals a sound—it will only take one sound, no matter how soft, to bring the walls of silence crashing down. When he releases the sound into the valley, noise comes rushing back in a massive chaotic frenzy. Milo apologizes to the Soundkeeper for ruining her silence, but she replies: “It’s all my fault. For you can’t improve sound by having only silence. The problem is to use each at the proper time.”

Sound encapsulates the presence of other human beings around us. Unfortunately, humans have made some terrible noises. But perhaps there’s even a place for terrible noise: when we are aware of the clatter and cacophony of life, we’re also aware of those discomforted by its chaos—and we can reach out to them in sympathy. When mountainous claps of thunder frighten a child, we can console them and explain the wonder of the sound.

We should take the busyness and sound of life, and find beauty—and even community—in it. And we should cultivate beautiful noise, being careful not to lose it in the busyness and the din. We ought to hear music, and truly listen: not just savor it in the backgrounds of our minds. We should listen to the miscellaneous patterns of various footsteps, and study their rhythmic cadences. We should study the human voice—its warmth, speed, lilts and cadences. We should savor the patter of rain, the lap of ocean waves, the pulsating rhythms of city life.

We can’t improve our chaotic world by seeking out pure silence: we must savor each sound, mindfully enjoying each at its proper time.

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