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The Sound of Silence

By Roy Esaki

There’s a lot of noise in this world: people chattering, construction pounding, commercials blaring, babies crying, students crying. Some of it is useful, such as the beeping of the microwave that tells us that our burrito is warm; others, like the ubiquitous wailing of car alarms, aren’t. There’s lot of noise from people, too: noise about things like Fourier series, the dangers of white powders, and how society really ought to function. Silence, at times, seems woefully underappreciated, considering how rare and golden it is.

Silence as the mere lack of noise is wonderful in its own right. Without any uncontrollable distractions that clutter the air and our minds, the world is clearer and more refined. There are times when white noise or background Mozart might be preferable to a sterile, libraryesque stillness. But complete silence is so rarely encountered that, like a perfectly cloudless starlit sky, it would be a waste to not bask and commune with the soundless moment.

There’s also the power of artistic silence: the anxious silence before a triumphant symphonic finale, the silent slow-motion animation and the hushed crowd as the ball soars towards the goal, a duel scene in a Western with a single tumbleweed blown by an inaudible breeze, the unspoken response to “Doctor, will she be all right?” or the unfinished last words of a dying lover. The silence is heard more than anything else in the emotional climax of the moment that can only be created by a perfectly crafted quiet.

It’s for this reason that eloquent speakers and everyday communicators use the potency of silence in communication. There are the ponderous pauses in Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech, which bred gravity and determination in the hearts of listeners. Then there’s the frighteningly patient silence a teacher uses to make unruly students feel uncomfortable. There’s the awkward silence the counselor uses to force the patient to continue talking. And, of course, there’s the silent treatment, the most energy-efficient way to make a point.

It can help you to be silent at times, as well. We’re expected by society, and eventually ourselves, to have answers for everything, to have an assertive opinion on all matters and to be active talkers and producers. But sometimes we aren’t able to come up with answers, aren’t qualified or informed enough to have a valuable opinion, or should be better listeners than talkers. Such situations call for silence. A contemplative silence is much more valuable than talking (or even writing columns) for the sake of it when one doesn’t have anything to say. Silence lets us collect our thoughts, be more mindful of the thoughts of others, and saves our breath for when we really need it.

Above all, silence lets you create your own reality, or share one with someone else. It’s a concept encapsulated by wordless communication; it’s based on your assumptions about what their facial and body gestures mean, and you are free to perceive it as you wish without the cumbersome interference of language to mar the pristine conceptual image you’ve formed. What else but a silent coy eyebrow raised across a dinner table could mean nothing, or everything, depending on how you choose to see things? “Shh -- don’t say anything,” she says, and you continue the silent, penetrating gaze. Silence doesn’t get much more beautiful than that.