I’ve been housesitting for friends who live in a very quiet, very bucolic part of the state. It’s been restful in many ways, most of which are probably obvious: no traffic, no city noises, cleaner air, singing birds, some of whom sound weirdly like my iPhone’s alert noise, which tells you all you need to know about how often I get out of the city and into quiet.
What’s been a bit surprising, and not a little alarming, has been discovering how much noise I’ll generate to mitigate against all that glorious silence. After dark, for example, I tend to like having Netflix or Hulu on to keep me company, not a habit I’m particularly okay with, but my current policy on this kind of stuff is to slow down and observe rather than act out of the alarm and try skipping over to good habits. Because when I skip steps, nothing sticks.
But the other other (and far more disturbing) thing I’ve noticed is how often I catch myself talking out loud to nobody. I’ll observe something silently, that it’s getting dark, for example, and that I should shutter up the house for the evening, and then I’ll say, “It’s getting dark, I should shutter up the house for the evening.” I mean, I will voice EXACTLY what I’ve just thought.1
I’ll ask my shrink and report back to you on that. In the meantime, here’s what the wide gulf between all that quiet and all that chatter has also pointed out to me: how much quieter I’ve gotten around other people. Not in a being-shy or expressing-my-inner-introvert’s way: in a listening way. In a being-okay-with-quiet way and a give-other-people-room way. I was raised to be really, really “on”, in my family, the wittiest monkeys tended to get the prime resources. “Off” didn’t happen unless I was off by myself (and believe me, I worked hard to get that “off” time.) The worst feeling I could have was to be around people and not feel comfortable enough either to talk (usually because I was either intimidated by their superior knowledge or their quicker monkey wit) or to let there be quiet (more complex, but obviously some deeper thing about safety).
These days, while there is still often the urge to natter on, to rush in and fill that abhorrent vacuum with yammering, just as often I’m cool with hanging. With letting other people natter on or, if they’re interesting, of drawing them out with questions. And yeah, yeah, I know the whole thing about the most sparkling conversationalist being the one who shuts up and lets other people talk about themselves. In my early days of learning the networking thing, I tried to consciously apply that technique. Now, it’s different; now, it’s more of a genuine curiosity. Who are these people? What stuff do they know that I don’t?
Or, if it’s about me (and yeah, it still is, because I’m still a selfish, self-involved, terrified little hairball much of the time), then it feels good to be quiet and to note the feelings and impulses that float up: Wow, I’m getting really anxious and my breath is getting shallow; or Dang, I really want to tell this guy what an effing incorrect blowhard he is. More often than not, I’ve been happy to shut up and listen. Or, when I don’t, to learn something from my not being able to.
If I have a point, and this is a baby idea, so I’m not sure that I do, it’s that clutter takes many, many forms. And word-clutter (surprise!) is one of them. In the past, just as I’ve rushed in to buy more crap to fill empty spaces, I’ve filled empty air with words. Finally, I get the power of “empty” space, of quiet. Years after having it illustrated during countless power scenes in acting class (for a crash course, watch The Godfather, part I or II.) Decades after I first tried (and failed, and failed, and failed) in silent meditation. Because the space is not empty: it’s filled with silence.
Beautiful, powerful, completely whole, utterly terrifying silence.
1If I’m in a playful mood, I’ll add, “I know it is; I’m you.” So yeah, I’m probably a little nuts. On the other hand, if you know you’re a little nuts, perhaps you’re less nuts than if you don’t know. Or maybe there’s just a little more hope for you. Or maybe you should just ease off the caffeine a bit.