Musicians who know their trade know to leave some pauses, space, between the notes they play. Perhaps that’s what defines a musician; knowing when not to play. Our lives are so full of noise that we rarely experience silence. Do we humans know when to turn things off? Do we know when not to play?
For most of my life, music has been on. Background music while doing chores. Active listening. Theme music for a road trip. Something to dance to of an evening. Always noise.
The movie Going in Style opens with George Burns, widower, waking and starting his day. Calisthenics, coffee, toast, eggs, dishes, dressing. Ten minutes of silence telling us more of loneliness and routine and boredom than any narrator or other exposition could. Silence was sad.
In January or February of this year I turned of Twitter. Of a weekday, I simply turned off the application and uninstalled it from my computer, phone, and tablet. It wasn’t a New Year’s Resolution. The noise had simply become strident and stressful. Here I was, more aware of what was going on in the world than most people (people who watched the news, listened to NPR, read the newspaper) and yet… to what end?
The thing about Twitter (and Facebook, and Instagram, and… social media in general) is that it’s instantly available whenever you have a spare moment. On your computer, on your phone. While waiting in line, while waiting for a meeting to start, while trying to avoid going to bed. Whip out the phone, tap-tap, and you’re fed an endless drip of sentiment, rage, and entertainment. Endless. Everyone has an opinion, everyone is an asshole. Perhaps it’s better to shut it off and think better of humanity.
Withdrawal takes about a month. If you make it that long, you can go forever. It’s funny; when I pull out my phone these days, I can check email and that’s about it. I still have that nicotine urge for something to occupy and entertain me, but I recognize the occasion of sin and I simply don’t light up. This must be the life of an ex-smoker.
A high-powered and very successful sales rep I know shared the story of one of his more eccentric customers over dinner. He described meeting the customer’s wife at a reception and she related more of the customer’s character. She told of times on weekend mornings where she’d find him in his study, staring off into space. “What are you doing?” “Thinking.” This so surprised the sales rep that he was sharing it with me; still in disbelief. Why was he shocked? Do people not think?
My new car has a six disc CD player. A 10GB hard drive. A media slot. A connector in the glove compartment connected to an old iPod. Bluetooth. The ability to play satellite radio should I choose to subscribe. I can, therefore, provide for myself. On my recent two hour commute to the airport, I remembered the AM/FM radio and gave it a spin around the dial. The journey took five minutes. Thirteen channels of shit to choose from indeed. I turned it off. All of it. Instead, I listened to the wind buffeting the car as I sped silently downstream, south, through the night.
I thought of nothing. I thought of the sound of the wind. It didn’t whistle; it sporadically sand blasted the car, nudging it slightly off course here and again. It was a strong wind. I thought of the day ahead. Of the days behind. I solved problems and prepared. I debated key points with those who were not present to present their counterpoints. Naturally I won those.
I travel often in my career. Long drives, long flights, long weeks in hotels and customer conference rooms. When I’m in a group, when I’m on stage, I’m capable of talking for hours (days even). It’s my job: I help people understand the workings and value of complex solutions to complex problems. But in the hotel, on the plane. In the comings and goings and waitings and movings, I like the silences between the notes.
Some of us can’t bear silence. Some of us have never tried. Entire lives are occupied from Good Morning America through the babble of shock-jocks and jock-talk into the evening news, through sitcoms and reality-show ejections from the tribe, into boy-wonder Jimmy Fallon’s goodnight schtick, turning on the sounds of surf, Mrs. Montag’s bees buzzing in her ear cans, rocking us gently to sleep.
But we can’t all need the noise. I would guess (I’m being generous) that not even five percent of us need the noise. The noise is for those who truly can’t deal. But like a government program, it’s there, and it’s free, and it beats the hell out of thinking or doing for yourself. And as a result, the 80/20 is reversed: those that don’t need are addicted anyway, and we’re left with mediocrity.
When faced with silence, embrace it. Sit on a rock in the woods. Look, listen. Smell. What month is it? Which flowers are in bloom? How many birds are there chattering back and forth at 5:00AM?
The world is between the notes. Become a musician.