We live in a more constantly cacophonous world than humans probably ever have, both literally and metaphorically. Any store or mall or office or elevator is likely to have music playing. We are talked to and sung at even when waiting to talk to someone on the phone. We wear headphones or earbuds while walking the dog or working out or even when sitting at our desks. I have to fight with students to take their earbuds out—both of them—when they are in lecture; some of them request that they be allowed to use them when they are taking exams. We chatter at one another about the most meaningless of things all the time: reality television, sporting events that we aren't even interested in, the details of celebrities' lives, what we've purchased or intend to purchase, the weather or lack of it. We turn on the television to give us background noise, we set our radios to sleep so that we have noise with which to fall asleep, as much to cover the quiet as to block out any noises. It is almost as if we cannot stand silence. Rather, it is quite literally that we cannot stand silence. By way of illustration, the gym I go to most days plays no music; it is maddening.
We cannot even stand the figurative silence of not being distracted. Left without anything to entertain us, we log onto Facebook or Twitter or Google-+ (well, not that), to engage in virtual conversation. But, again, these aren't conversations about anything, unless 17 things that will change the way you think about cruciferous vegetables is really a topic any more interesting than the gastrointestinal health of your great aunt. And, yet, try to go a day without engaging in them. Try to get students to go fifty-five minutes without checking Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat or Tinder or their text messages. Or watch as parents put an iPad in front of their child at a restaurant.
(Another day, I will have to think about why we prefer these virtual conversations to ones with the real people around us.)
In moments of silence, we are left with nothing more than ourselves and our own thoughts. We are left in a certain kind of solitude. Historically, this was often thought a good thing. Aristotle in the Ethics could think of nothing better than to be allowed just to think, self-sufficiently. Nietzsche in the Genealogy said that ascetics fled to the desert so that they could avoid being distracted and be left alone with their own thoughts, the things they really loved, as an expectant mother loves the child growing in her. But both of these stances require that we like our own thoughts, that we find something interesting and fruitful in them, that we find them to be of value. They require that when we look inside we find something there, and that we are not ashamed of what we find.
If we dread silence, what does this say about our own relationship to ourselves and our thoughts? I fear it means either that we find nothing inside ourselves—that we are the Abyss to ourselves—or that we cannot bear what we do find and so need constantly to be distracted from it. As Simon says in Lord of the Flies, we discover that we are the Beast and we don't want to be left alone with it. Whether we find ourselves boring or terrifying, it cannot be a good sign. And, what else can our dread of silence mean?