The Silence of Life, or, How to Live Like a Poem

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“Why doesn’t music play in the background of my life?” I wondered one quiet morning after returning from a semester abroad in Australia, Thailand, India and New Zealand. It’s like the silence of life is overwhelming when you return from a sprint around the world, and when you catch your breath while pouring cereal, this ‘real life’ seems incredibly dry.

I now think often about the silence of real life. I think about how often we try to escape this silence, or locate ourselves places where the silence won’t find us; cities, night clubs, or even a beachside cottage where the gentle rolling of the waves assuages our fears of silence.

Yesterday in the gym, a guy was playing music from his phone while he showered in the locker room. This was after working out with his headphones in. When he had gotten dressed — with the music still playing — he popped his headphones back in and left the gym.

I’m just as scared of silence, but don’t want to be that guy in the locker room.

This summer my best friend and I backpacked around Guatemala for a week. He had flown down to visit me in the beautiful country as I wrapped up a year of teaching there. I look back on that week as if a soundtrack were playing behind our travels: the early morning busses we caught to shoot up north to Flores and the diving into the lake when we got there. We got caught in the rain while in the back of a pickup truck bouncing over dirt roads, and again when we were canoeing out to an island where a rope swing was hidden.

It was one of those fast-paced weeks you don’t even realize you’re not listening to music because your life itself is alive with the music of the world.

I’m sure you’ve had weeks like this, so full of life and energy.

You return home, get in your car, and suddenly remember that artist you got hooked on two weeks ago and haven’t heard in two weeks. Then your car speakers fill with their sounds, and these sounds quickly become the counterfeit music of life.

My life isn’t poetic as it was when I was shooting across Guatemala, or the following month when I made a trek to Scotland, so I need some sort of poetry feed to me. Either you’re living loudly — a disruptive attack on mundanity and routine — or you’re seeking a substitute.

I wonder if a lot of maturity and growth happens when we accept the silence, then. Or rather, the question I keep asking myself is, Should I accept this mundane life in the American suburbs, or make a new, disruptive song? Many of us — not me; maybe you — are happy with your paycheck, mortgage and 401k and never think to expand the boundaries of our lives, save a week-long trip to Cancun.

I’m not the type to argue that travel provides meaning to the human life. Learning, yes, but not necessarily meaning. I’m not simply chasing a rootless and vagrant lifestyle. That tends to provide neither learning nor meaning. In fact, the father of modern vagabonding, Rolf Potts, said,

“The value of your travels does not hinge on how many stamps you have in your passport when you get home — and the slow nuanced experience of a single country is always better than the hurried, superficial experience of forty countries.”

No, when I talk about the music of life I mean the sense of adventure felt when you are doing anything — anything — that makes you forget that there is no music coming from the stereo. Or not care that it’s on a random radio station, because these sounds, this counterfeit music, barely measures up to the real music you are living.

One time I got so entranced in a college paper in the library I quickly forgot I didn’t have headphones in for hours; I was lost in the words of the rich theological paper. I often choose to go for runs without headphones as well: a choice which seems daunting at first (“How will I keep my mind entertained??”), but almost always ends up being replaced by the sound of the world and a steady flow of thoughts.

Whatever it is that eases your craving for music, do that. Music isn’t bad, but neither is silence. And if you, like the guy in the locker room, cannot live apart from your music, try to figure out why. Figure out what it is that makes you feel so alive that this craving falls away.

We are addicted to entertainment and noise, and new research on addiction shows that the solution is not to focus more intently on the addiction itself, but to make the victim’s life holistically better. The problem isn’t with music, of course, but with the intense craving for it at all times, with the renouncing of the calm silence of life because it’s not good enough for you. Music is a beautiful adornment; a rich reward and a significant delight. However, as a source for meaning, or a distraction from the silence of our real lives, it falls short.

May we be people who do two things: May we live lives so rich and full of beauty that we don’t crave music like an addict. And may we be content with those moments of silence, not always rushing to fill them with noise and entertainment, but listening and being at peace.


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