Today I went on a hike on my own, which was freeing and relaxing. Though perhaps “on my own” is a generous phrase, as it was a bit busy in some parts of the hike. Thankfully, it’s a tough hike up so by the time I reached the summit of this particular area, it wasn’t so bad. Found my favorite area to be empty so I sat there for some time, recovering and took some photos. It was so serene and quiet, with the trees swaying gently with the wind, leaves rustling quietly, and birds chirping. Such a relief to be out there after a long unfortunate break. Let my mind work through some things and then thought about “silence” as a concept, as I periodically do. (I’m fun.)
How would you characterize silence? Dictionary definition defines silence as the absence of sound. This seems true enough, though it does not capture the full complexity, meaningfulness, and implications of what silence can be.
When you think of communication, you think of language. We use patterned sounds to get your audience to react and act; those sounds are meaningful. They form languages. Those languages are intended to be used as a common ground standard to communicate thoughts and intentions. Can the absence of sound be meaningful?
First, I think we need to understand what we mean when we use silence? Consider these examples:
On my hike today there were a few moments of what I immediately thought of as blissful silence. But that’s not quite accurate. What I meant was there was an absence of the usual I have in my day-to-day. Can’t quite describe the blissful effect that sort of silence had in my mind.
Maybe you’ve been guilted into baby sitting a child who is prone to severe separation anxiety. When their parents leave, they wail for hours. Nothing you do will stop the child from crying. Finally the parent arrives and whisks their child away, leaving you in total silence. Bliss.
Someone or something (a dog for example) in your day-to-day life has passed away. Their presence and conversation were a source of comfort from the world, but now that they’re gone the silence of your home is cold and overwhelming.
Now contrast those examples of silence with the following:
Say you and your colleague are venting frustrations about your boss. Jarringly, you see your boss appear behind your coworker and you drop silent, signaling to your conversational partner that they ought to stop venting now; a warning.
You are on a date with someone. It’s going well but then your partner signals they want to have sex with you. You say “no”. They hear you, but either because they didn’t understand what you said or understood and didn’t take it seriously, they rape you.
All of these examples collectively begin-and only just- to show the complex nature of silence. The first set were indicating an internal state of mind as a reaction to the environment. The second set were examples of linguistic silence. Silence, perhaps counterintuitively, is both complex and meaningful. The meaningfulness to silence and our reactions to it vary depending on context. In this way, I think “silence” as a concept deserves more attention for study. It’s beautifully intuitive but simultaneously surprisingly layered So though I’m not answering my own question, I’m beginning the process of understanding.
Here’s to many more blissful moments of silence.