Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Power of Silence

Late yesterday afternoon, my neighborhood lost power due to a "winter" storm.  All told, we were without power for about four hours.  For me, it was four hours of bliss.  I went to the mailbox, seeing several neighbors who had come outside to see if they were alone in the powerlessness.  I then walked to the garage, grabbed a couple of fire logs, and built myself a fire.

I was no longer connected to the interwebs; the tv was not working; and there was no hum from the fridge or from the air purifier.  I refused to put on the earphones of my iPod.  I listened to the rain as it got darker and the fog rolled in.  That, in combination with the fire were, to me, priceless--one of those times when my needs were met with some outside event.

You see, I need silence.  I need solitude.  When I was growing up, I had a series of ear infections and ear aches that cost me part of my ability to hear.  I was 75% deaf in one ear, 50% in the other.  I started school one year later than the other kids because of this.  When I was ten, I had surgery to put a little blue tube in each ear drum to release the fluid build up.  I could not swim for a year and had to keep water out of my ears (had to wear earplugs during showers).  The days after the surgery were the most intense pain I've ever felt--I lay on the couch having ear drops used to lessen the pain.  But I could hear things I'd never heard before--the birds, the traffic, the sounds that we all try to put out of our consciousness, but without which we would feel somewhat empty.  This was part of my introduction to silence by choice versus imposed silence.

My students seemingly need noise, distraction, something to grab at their attention, rarely listening to the voices in their heads (the self-talk kind, not the hallucinatory kind).  When I tell them I need silence from time to time, they look at me like I am crazy.  I tell them that time moves differently when there is silence--it goes more slowly and I can do more of what I need to do, including think. 

I did some cursory research on the issue and found not nearly enough to my liking.  There were many items on meditation and prayer and the power of silence in relation to those practices.  There was even a little about American culture and how Americans tend not to like silence--we will fill up silence with words rather than let the silence sit there, lingering.

As I write this, I am reminded of a story Desmond Morris told of an African tribal group where women did not speak for about six months (if I recall correctly) as a method of mourning the loss of a loved one.  They had developed a wealth of signs to communicate, but speaking was forbidden.

I recall a radio interview some years ago with an author who explained that people who cannot handle silence cannot handle the thoughts that are in their own head.  I do not know of research, but that sounds intuitively true.  In our culture, our children are growing up increasingly distracted--I have students who are very uncomfortable just sitting still during or after an exam.  "Can I listen to my iPod. . .please?" are the plaintive cries, especially this past week during finals. I often think to myself, "What are you afraid of with the silence?  Will it hurt you?  Do you not like what you will find in the world without external noise?  Are you afraid of your inner voice?  Are you so addicted to distractions that it hurts to have silence?"  And I wonder on.

What can one do with this topic in class?  I offer some suggestions:
  1. Explain the importance of silence both in terms of culture (social psychology) and in terms of perception--how does time perception change?  You could do a demonstration with students closing their eyes--you will not tell them how long--have them estimate how long--then tell them the actual time.  Discuss implications of this perception change.
  2. Have the students listen to the sounds of the classroom--can they hear the buzz of the lights?  Can they hear traffic (my classroom is at one of the busiest corners in town)?  Can they hear the shuffling of papers, the crinkling of gum or candy wrappers?  Are they aware of how much noise they themselves make each time they move?  Can they hear their own joints creak when they move (maybe that is just for the teachers)?
  3. Find a film clip(s) or use a willing student as a demonstration in a discussion--how to use silence to set people off guard.  How uncomfortable do we get when people just look at us without saying anything?  It's amazing how much of our insecurity we project into situations when we expect someone else to say something.
  4. Ask students for their own examples of when silence has changed their view of an experience or a conversation.
  5. Try watching a film clip or a sporting event without the sound of the announcers or the crowd--how much does sound fill us up emotionally and send us context clues as to how to respond?
  6. Talk with your local sign-language teacher about the role silence plays in the life of a deaf person--how is the world different for them?
  7. Have students write about how their lives would be different if there were no longer sounds in their lives?  
  8. I'm certain there are dozens more ideas--please feel free to add them in the comments section.

All in all, sound and silence is a fascinating set of topics.  During your vacation (or at least time away from school) I wish for you time to sit in quiet and time to reflect on all the good you do in your work with children. 

Some links for further reading--these are highly rated books that deal with the role of silence in our lives.

A paper that discusses how different cultures use silence in the communication process

Can Silence be Eloquent?
The Eight Core Values of the Japanese Businessman: Toward an Understanding of Japanese Management
A book about Japanese business that has a section on the importance of silence

posted by Chuck Schallhorn

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Great post Chuck! Here's another possible class connection (its kind of "superficial" compared to the ones on your list though): Students could research sensory deprivation, and how sensory "silence" is handled by the brain (hallucinations! Tinnitus!)

And I love Oliver Sacks's book about deaf culture - Seeing Voices