I have a confession to make. I had to delete the Buzzfeed app off of my phone a few years back because I would scroll through top ten lists and tiny cartoons for large swathes of time that gradually were becoming longer and longer. Sometimes I feel like certain apps are a test of human willpower. Who can withstand the sheer blast force of the top ten most adorable baby seal photos? Nobody can. Not me. Look at those furry faces. Fucking adorable is what those are…Next?
Despite that one minor commitment to personal restraint I still binge watch television shows because I want to escape. I want to tune out. I want a vacation from my head. I am pursuing a state of comfort. I am trying to force the world to give me a bubble where time slows down. To where do I run for comfort and reassurance in the cold world? To the fridge for beer and to another episode of (insert current streaming show here).
The things that I refer to as escape tend to cause a restless energetic boredom. When I want to escape, the intention defines the act. When I am not watching something I pace around. I look for things to do. I want to be entertained lest I have to face those parts of myself that I am really trying to avoid. Silence is disruptive and obnoxious. It is a mirror that gives me back to myself in a form that is difficult to categorize or assign, this makes it terribly uncomfortable because I have been diving out all available escape hatches to avoid it. To be still is to neglect those things which could be done in favor of the intangible mystery that silence invokes. Silence requires participation in ways that tend to be both demanding and restful precisely because they have nothing to do with actively pursuing. I believe that silence is terrible to the extent that I believe that I am defined by my tastes, my culture, my interests, and my work. I try to avoid the nothing of silence because I fear the Something that enters Nothing.
Upon visiting a sound proof chamber at Harvard John Cage discovered that even compete and utter silence is rich with the sound of the human heartbeat and the hum of the nervous system. As a musician he made the choice to hear the sound of life itself as music. The artist made a choice about the nature of reality and was moved by the choice to create a piece of art about that choice itself. Good art enters into the difficult-to-define and allows the difficulty to remain completely intact. Bad art dodges or side-steps. To allow for the stillness of a room to be interrupted by the audience, by the moving traffic outside, by uneven weight distribution on wooden chairs was to give the audience the same gift that he had been given. To return the knowledge that life itself is a perpetual kind of music. As reasoning beings we apply structure and meaning to reality. We search for patterns and even the void of silence becomes less of a void than we had imagined. The void of silence is quite literally alive because you are alive.
The reaction of the audience was to be expected, when people expect to be entertained, the worst thing that you can give them is the opposite of a distraction. People expect work in exchange for their money. They expect a revelation. To be moved or changed in some way. John Cage responded to the reaction like this,
“They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds.”
I remember the busted concrete walkway in the front of my apartment off of High street where I lived in a basement with a decade old dented CD player and not much else worth mentioning because I had surrendered my right to stuff in my messy divorce. I had no TV and one worn out blue chair in the living room and I was constantly lonely. The company that I did have besides a rapidly thinning pack of cigarettes was silence. A deep humming silence that moved through the crisp autumn air. I know that I was heartsick and I felt profoundly alone, but the quiet was a richness that allowed me to mourn the loss of a relationship and to begin to identify that loss as a real, albeit unpleasant part of my life. In the wake of failure and with no idea about where the future would go I was left in the hot glow of the present and I’m not sure if I was aware of it at the time, but I am pretty sure that the quiet formed space for me to allow myself to become needy in a new way.
The Psalm verse, “Be still, and Know that I am God.” tends to have mysteriously transformed in quite a few church settings into another form of sweat-soaked striving. Get out your checklist and make sure you’ve got this on there too kids. Try harder to be more holy. I tried really, really hard and I ate some serious shit. I’ve got good news and bad news, stillness will intrude upon your life no matter how often you try to dodge it or outrun it. Typically people only actively seek out silence only after a recognized failure in the doing realm. The long quiet walk is the activity of the broken-hearted, the divorced, the forgotten, and the fuck-up. Only the needy adore silence. I guess at the end of the day you take comfort in your not-doing or it fills you with dread and both of them will tell you a story about who you are. It is difficult if not impossible to arrive at personal neediness as a foregone conclusion, but silence waits until neediness is an assumed and constant state of being.
I don’t typically do this, but I first ran across the John Cage story in this book which I think is a fantastic and fascinating book on a really, really difficult subject: