In Praise of Quiet
Courtesy of the long weekend, I have been out in the countryside of my home town. As a boy I did not care for the place much, I will admit. I found I didn’t fit in well, either with the countryside or the people who lived there. As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for it. Don’t get the wrong impression; I remain very much a city boy at heart. I enjoy the vibrancy and the energy and the culture. The reactosphere tends to be full of nostalgic types who revere both the wilds and our agrarian past, but I refuse to wear rose-colored glasses. It was urbanization, and the settling of man into cities, that allowed for the birth of civilization, as mass concentrations of men gave birth to specialization, and with it the arts and culture as a whole. Had we remained wandering bands of hunter-gatherers there would be little trace of our existence outside of our immediate vicinity beside the imprint of our feet upon the ground; no written words or physical monuments. It was the beginning of landed settlements, and later the rise of great cities, that afforded man the ability to build something lasting.
That being said, I do appreciate the countryside: the beauty of nature, the fresh smell of the air, and above all the quiet. Quiet is something we are not truly comfortable with these days, particularly those of my generation. It’s something we have never really been forced to experience and when faced with it do not really know how to cope. Due to the wonders of modern technology we are the first generation to be afforded the luxury of constant stimulation. We never have to be bored, not even for five minutes. I’m as guilty as the next party, when standing in line at the grocery store if there’s more than one person in front of me out comes the smartphone as I begin searching for something, anything, to occupy my mind for the next few seconds of waiting. If it’s the middle of the night and nothing is on TV I can just find something to stream off the internet. We are connected to one another 24/7 through texting, chatting, posting, and messaging. Every moment of our lives, along with those of everyone we know, is documented and photographed and instantly shared with everyone in our circle.
I certainly am no Luddite. As I mentioned I am as guilty of this phenomena as the next person. I enjoy my smartphone and my iPad. When the power goes out I curse my misfortune and sit in bored agony until the lights come back on and my Wifi with them. However, I refuse to wallow in delusion. I enjoy 80s punk music (something people are often surprised to discover) but I enjoy it for what it is, not as any kind of noteworthy melody but rather as a hit of adrenaline juice. Much of modern life is exactly that, a stimulant to the senses that charges us up and energizes us to get through the day. We can’t help ourselves, it’s like a drug, one that is freely available every second of every day.
So when I have the opportunity to get away from it all, I have increasing begin to enjoy the opportunity to be quiet and being out in nature best affords me this opportunity. I find the joy in walking alone through a field doing nothing but smelling the scent of the pine trees and listening to the sounds of the birds as I take in the godly beauty that is nature all around me. I’ll sit out in the sun, read a book and allowing myself to absorb the majesty of the words upon the paper. With a glass of wine I’ll curl up in a chair to listen to Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 as the power of the crescendo washes over me. I will let myself simply be for a few seconds as the quiet washes over me and everything becomes still just for an instant.
Moments like those last for only an instant but are an eternity in and of themselves. They are more rejuvenating than a million nights’ of fitful sleep cut short by the braying of the alarm clock summoning me back to the office, or an innumerable set of weekends off spent frantically fulfilling the tasks and chores that have piled up the days before. They are moments that I sadly think we as a species are losing the ability to enjoy, or at least forgetting how to. We increasingly are unable to pull the plug and be alone with our thoughts, even if it is only for the space of a few minutes.
Perhaps we are already witnessing the effects of this, as we increasingly medicate ourselves (either literally or figuratively) to allow the stimulation to keep flowing and to let us keep running the eternal race for the next adrenaline high. Depression, anxiety, and a host of other ills are increasingly experienced by those around us. Perhaps we are finally beginning to push the limits of what our fragile bodies and mental states are capable of enduring.
I certainly do not advocate the life of isolated, quiet contemplation of a monk. I’ll leave that to those who feel the heavenly call for such vocations, which I never have. As I head back to my normal life, with its rush and thrill and stimulation, it will not be with any reluctance or regret. I will always treasure the moments of quiet that I can find for myself, and urge others to seek them out whenever they can.