The Paradox of Silence

by marin mikulic

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The world is a radio, isn’t it?




Signal is not easy to come by and silence is an endangered species.

There’s this ancient Mesopotamian myth called the Enûma Eliš. It tells of the Old Gods, Apsu and Tiamat, who gave birth to a generation of noisy Young Gods. Frustrated, Apsu decides to kill them all so they can finally sleep in silence. I’m sure parents can relate, although I hope not entirely.

The Enûma Eliš is 3500 years old. What would the old mythmakers think of the modern Age of Noise?

I bring up the Enûma Eliš to show that it’s pointless to call for a return to the “good, old, noise-free times”. We’ve always been noisy. What’s changed is the scale. We can now produce more noise and so we do.

The Consequnces of the Industrial Era

In the pre-industrial era, silence was a simple fact. It was everywhere while we were few and our means primitive. Only the privileged could amplify their vocal cords — in the Roman amphitheaters or European churches.

No one else.

Then the Industrial Era erupted into our collective consciousness, followed by the Information Age. Steam. Coal. Oil. Railways. Cars. Highways and speedways. Electricity. Telephone. Speakers. Airplanes. Microphone. Radio. Television. Megaphone. The Internet. Social Media. Smartphones. Open-floor-plan offices.

The unprivileged found their voice. Everyone can speak words into a microphone and have someone listen, miles away. The elites lost their monopoly. We stole the show. Silence has nowhere left to hide.

If that history trip sounds too fluffy, here’s a concrete example. A friend of mine works with the most powerful voice of the people — social media. Her job is to track what’s happening, where’s it happening, and how it reflects on her company’s brand. It’s a waterfall of noise, a downpour, in her own words. In a single day, she might go through twenty articles and a hundred posts. She remembers none of it the day after. How much of it do you remember?

Noise is now an integral part of our lives. It is indistinguishable from the modern city. Silence is the rainbow. Lovely, but no one knows where to find it.

All the kids know where’s Waldo, but where is silence?

It’s in the high-end, premium shops. Packaged and sold, like water. In a loud world, silence sells.

Think of your noise-canceling headphones and exclusive silent retreats. Meditation is the new black. Everyone’s doing yoga. All the vacation photographs show quiet beaches and solemn mountains.

It’s a need to get away from all the noise. You get on the airplane and make your way to a beach in Croatia or the Caribbean. You change into the summer clothes and lie down, ready to rest in silence.

Then you discover you can’t.

It’s been a long while since last you hung out with silence. You’re far removed from it. Where once you paid for silence now you’re ready to pay for noise and distraction. Spotify, Netflix, social media, instant messaging, endless surfing on the web. It doesn’t matter.

Just get rid of the silence.

The Open-Floor Office Plan

Maybe the best example of this need for noise and distraction is the open-floor office plan. Who convinced us that endless noise and interruption foster better work? It might be that ‘management’ forced it on us. It might also be that we took it up eagerly. Endless noise, after all, means less silence.

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It is a paradox. Yearning for silence while at the same time fearing it. I buy headphones to silence the noise, only to hit play the moment noise disappears.


Erling Kagge, a Norwegian polar explorer, calls it experiential poverty. It can be about the lack of experience, but also its abundance. If the answer to silence is absolute freedom to overdose on distraction then we’ll forever crave higher dosages. That is a kind of poverty in itself — never satisfied, always running. In the ocean of distraction, who will find me if I cannot find myself?

If I am to write about any of this it’s good to admit I’m as distracted as you are. Whenever silence comes visiting my mind gropes for distraction. What am I so afraid of?

I don’t know. The only thing that seems obvious is that life passes by while we crave more entertainment, more noise. How big of a TV do you need? As big as the ocean. Let it clutter every silence and drown the uncomfortable thoughts.

Running out of distraction

On occasion, I manage to run out of distraction to keep me occupied. A traffic jam, bad internet signal, forgetting my phone or just going to bed at night forces me to deal with silence. To peek inside the walls of my skull. There, instead of silence, I find an emotional rave party.

Where is this silence the oriental gurus talk about? All I hear on the inside is a madness of cyclical thought. Fear, regret, anxiety. Like boiling water, it all comes crashing against my willpower.

After a long day at work, the last thing I want to do is deal with all this crap. It’s easier to fire up Netflix and get on with it. That’s what most of us do anyway. Doesn’t that make it okay?

Maybe, if I buy into ‘okayness by numbers’. I don’t, on an intellectual level, but it’s hard to be conscious. It’s easier to do what others are doing. That’s got to be enough.

And it is.

It’ll get me through life like anybody else. I’ll drop off a little sooner or a little later, but I’ll get through it. Why bother with the onslaught of thoughts that comes with silence?

Why bother with even a single undistracted minute?

Look, you know the answer. No one has ever distracted their problems away. They come back, like unprotected sex. The thoughts, the emotion, the anxieties. Noise, no matter how addicting, can only ever repress the onslaught. It cannot resolve it.

The only way to resolve it is become friends again with silence. To remember that the onslaught exhausts itself if you hold out long enough. It cannot keep up, not when you’re watching. Kind of like shining a spotlight on a thief in the night. He blushes and, if you stare at him long enough, disappears. That’s all meditation is — being patient in silence and forcing the thief to blush.

None of this is fun, or easy, or cute. Having the courage to choose silence, every day, will exhaust you. There are no flashy rewards, no applause, only a whole lot of solitude. Over time, as you get better at it, the noise of your thoughts will settle. Stones on the ocean bottom. Undisturbed. Undistracted. Centered.

Not much more to say than that.

I realize you might disagree with the whole premise. That’s all right, of course. There’s nothing to prove here. None of it is about convincing you to do this or to do that. Whether you’ll invite more silence into your life doesn’t hinge on an essay from a guy in the online wilderness. It hinges on you.

And that’s the truth, as far as I can see it.

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