What is silence?
It’s nothing. It’s a gap in the noise around us. It’s nothingness.
You can tell a lot about a person by how they react to a moment of silence. Do they jump to fill the void? Do they sit and fumble about fixing their clothes awkwardly? Or do they embrace it, almost as if they haven’t even noticed that there has been a pause in the cacophony of your surroundings?
Luckily for you, I love being quiet (most of the time). I love not feeling obliged to speak when I don’t have to. I for one love silence, and quietness, as sad as it may sound. There is a difference between the two, I suppose; quietness is forgiving of little noises, silence is absolute, and both are so much more valuable than so many people realise.
My friends and family often laugh and groan at me for sometimes not picking up my phone (you know who you are) or not seeing something on a social networking site, because I didn’t get a notification or my phone didn’t actually ring (I never have the volume on), and here’s why, other than the fact that I genuinely may not have realised I missed a call or text.
Have you ever been spending time with someone and in mid conversation their phone repeatedly pings with notifications and messages and calls redirecting all given attention away from the present moment? And, God forbid, you have to repeat yourself about three times trying not to interrupt their streams of notifications or their stream of thought while they’re typing or reading about what someone else has to say? If you’ve never thought about it before, or never really cared, perhaps you’ll notice it more now.
I don’t mean for that to sound aggressive at all, because this is how our modern lives are now, having to battle against the crimes of cyber distraction that we all commit hypocritically, but I do feel that some things deserve to be valued and respected, like quietness, solitude, and the ability to listen.
Because our modern society seems to be obsessed with labels, I would go as far to say that I am mostly ‘introverted’, despite my bubbly nature in the best of times when my mood hasn’t been affected by my nocturnal living, which means that I am mostly energised by spending time alone, or with people who need that same peaceful aesthetic as I do. That’s not to say that I don’t love being around fun people, I need that too, but a little bit of quiet spent with someone can be just as satisfying for me, if not more.
In fact that’s one of my favourite things, sharing a silence. Silence is important, and it’s a key element to solitude, which is vital sometimes, but sharing a mutual silence can be just as therapeutic.
Another one of my favourite things is to sit in a room filled with people I love being around, who chatter and banter and chirp off one another, and I can sit and chill and still feel involved by occasionally chirping in every now and then, but mostly just listening, because the energy’s already in the room. Sometimes I can feel a little lost in big loud groups, but when the mood is right, I just really enjoy the company.
I recently read a passage in a book that sort of defined this situation for me.
It was in Sophia Dembling’s ‘The Introvert’s Way’, which has the encompassing by-line ‘living a quiet life in a noisy world’. She writes about the nineteenth century poet Charles Baudelaire and his own interpretation of the French word ‘flaneur’ which can be translated into a ‘stroller’:
“The crowd is his element,” he wrote in 1863, “as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flaneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world- impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.”
I felt like this was a really accurate way of describing what people-watching is like, which is something I do a lot, particularly since I moved to London, finding somewhere to sit and watch the world go by, whether it's in a cafe or somewhere beside the Thames. I love being among the chaos, with a little bit of distance, whether it’s because I’m on my own or I’ve got my headphones in so that I don’t have to think so much, particularly on those days when I force myself to leave the comfort of my flat (away from Netflix, basically).
I sometimes play what I like to call Tube Lottery, just popping on and off various tube lines and see where I end up, then go for a wander around wherever I find myself. Whether I have my headphones in all day or not, it still seems to feel like a quiet day when you don’t have someone next to you to talk to, but then again having someone with you can be just as peaceful. I recently went to a gig where I didn’t necessarily know all of the artist’s music with much familiarity, so some of it was fresh to me, and to be able to stand among a crowd of strangers with someone beside you sharing the experience, is a really comforting moment to have, when you don’t feel you have to talk, and the silence feels easy and comfortable.
It made me think about whether you can differentiate between different kinds of silence, and then I came across this passage perfectly put together by Paul Goodman, a twentieth-century novelist, poet, playwright, and psychiatrist.
“Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each. There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy; the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face; the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts; the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, “This… this…”; the musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity; the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear; the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud and subvocal speech but sullen to say it; baffled silence; the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.”
What caught my attention the most was the last line, ‘the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or the communion with the cosmos’, basically being peacefully happy with the people around you or your surroundings and your place in the world.
Despite the many nights spent with the relentless muffled beat of XOYO thudding in my ears and various other nights of alcohol consumption when talking audibly is only possible if you can battle against the music’s volume (that’s quite difficult for me seeing as I sound like a 12 year old girl most of the time, as many sales call people seem to have made quite clear to me unintentionally), one of the things I’ve really learnt to appreciate this year is the value of silence, and realising how much I actually need it.
If any of you follow my writing and social media on a regular basis it’s probably quite clear how much time I spend on my balcony, particularly of recent now that the weather’s warmer and the skies are blue (you would hope). My balcony is my peaceful place, particularly on a sunny day when I get my perfect little set up of a cup of tea, my laptop and perhaps a book,. When I can’t bare the cold or the sleety rain, my bedroom provides me with the same solace, with the large window streaming in light and the view of the cluster of trees outlining the Astroturf below and the various buildings and flat blocks that disappear into Elephant and Castle and the realms of South London. I just enjoy being able to sit and chill with a good view, and I feel lucky to have what I’ve got here, which makes the thought of moving out of university halls in a few weeks’ time quite hard to bear.
Some of my favourite moments in my first year of uni have been spent on that balcony, whether there was alcohol involved or if my friends and I were just sitting with a blanket and a cup of tea or hot chocolate chatting away as the planes above crisscrossing towards Gatwick and Heathrow airports while we guess jealously where they’re travelling from. On nights like these, as the conversation flows and ceases and we dip into sporadic moments of silence or to the sound of music alone, I am most content to have someone else’s company, kind of like the relationship between the somewhat unlikely pair Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) in the film Lost In Translation, it’s their unlabelled mutual companionship that makes the film so comforting to me, without there being a big cheesy predictable Hollywood ending for once; it’s refreshing.
But I’ve also noticed how some people don’t always seem to recognise silence or moments alone or the comfort of silent mutual company, as much as they should. If anything, it’s something I need regularly, I crave it. The strongest bonds I have in my life, coincidentally, are with those who I can share quiet, endless moments with, comfortably, without either person feeling the need to interject or fill the void. Sometimes it’s not necessary, for the sake of thoughts being able to fill one’s mind knowing that the other would be there to talk to if they had an observation or a thought to share, or just to not think at all. For someone to choose to spend such a priceless moment with me is the highest form of flattery I could ask for.
I admire those who are naturally quick and sharp witted and nail the timing of their comical remarks; people like that energise the room and they’re the kind of people that others want to be near, want to emulate. I wish I was more like that! But I enjoy just being able to laugh at them just as much, I’m a nice confidence boost for people that way, reminding them that someone finds them funny, at least… But then again I laugh at everything, so I’m not sure how flattered they really would feel.
I do believe that people (including ourselves) are what provide our lives with a little more substance. You learning to be quiet and being able to enjoy a dramatic sunset (or something cheesy alike) on your own is really important, to find those little moments of quiet thought. I find that all these little moments of silence give you the time and clarity to work through those trivial things about yourself that make up who you are.
But also, learning to appreciate the value of spending silence with someone can be just as special. Learn to embrace it and let it happen for the sake of being able to relax and let your mind rest.
Also, you might not realise how much it’ll mean to the person you’re sharing it with, someone like me.
(Quite aptly, as I finished writing this, my Spotify randomly started playing and the first song to play was Loud Places by Jamie xx, which begins with some pretty relevant nostalgic lyrics.)
Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TP9luRtEqjc
I go to loud places, To search for someone, To be quiet with, Who will take me home.
You go to loud places, To find someone who, Will take you higher than, I took you.