Some 20 years before Simon and Garfunkel sent the phrase echoing around the world, an old editor taught me that to be a half-decent political reporter, I must both hear and listen to what politicians were saying. There is a difference between hearing and listening.
I am told Paul Simon was 17 years old when he wrote the lyrics for The Sounds Of Silence, and with his partner Art Garfunkel sang of “people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening.” When I sing along quietly to myself these days, I am reminded that old editors and young singer-philosophers are not always as far apart in thinking as we may sometimes imagine.
What happened to those baby-boom singers who wrote rhymes of challenge, put them to music and sang them clearly above the music as quiet exhortations to work for a better world? I don’t hear the likes today, although I try to listen. But all that comes through from commercial radio transmitters is battering-ram sound with a plaintive or arrogant voice, which I think is human, shouting insults or challenges which I can’t hear however carefully I listen. Are there no “sounds of silence” left in this world of never-ending chattering noise?
I know Paul Simon’s lyrics can be interpreted as listeners see fit. And I admit I may be ultra-biased-selective when I highlight a few lines of his double-barrelled philosophy because I regard them as accurate prophecies made in the ’60s about life in the future. He said he saw “ten thousand people, maybe more / People talking without speaking / People hearing without listening / People writing songs that voices never share / And no one dared / disturb the sound of silence.” It is regrettable that latter prophecy is a stronger truth today than it was when first sung. The “silent majority” remains ever more reluctant to disturb the silences imposed by political correctness.
But what about those lines about ten thousand talking without speaking and people hearing without listening? Isn’t that what we see today on the street, in pubs, in coffee shops, at bus stops, on the buses; people walking heads-down, bumping into others, striding unaware across highways — “texting”? I’m told only the older generation now use the cellphone to actually talk to people; that conversation is has become a lost art and silent contemplation too weird to consider.
Can that be true? Doesn’t anyone go and sit on a hill-top and just “think” anymore? Or lean on the sea-wall on Dallas Road and wonder about time and tide? Doesn’t anyone read Thoreau and appreciate what he meant when he said he had three chairs in his house, “one for solitude, two for friendship and three for society”? And added later that while he appreciated spells when the two chairs were in use, “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
He was not, and neither am I, suggesting friendships, good companions, are not to be desired. They are indeed to be sought and cherished, but with periods of solitude shared as a buffer against the noise of modern living. I rate myself among the fortunate in that at every stage of my life, there have been friends with whom I could share solitude. But not even the strongest friendship ever eliminated my need to just walk, or sit, or lean or lie down and think alone once in a while.
In times of crisis, particularly at the family level, a spell of solitude can be the great healer, as Oliver Wendell Holmes once said: “Silence like a poultice comes to heal the blows of sound.” Two hundred or so years earlier, Ben Jonson wrote “calumnies are answered best with silence,” and that’s as true today as it was in the 1600s when Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations tells me it was written.
But I think the most powerful argument for more silence in our lives comes in old-fashioned classic prose from Thomas Carlyle. The creative among us will most appreciate it, but we can all profit: ”Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together, that at length they may emerge, full formed and majestic, into the daylight of life .… In thy own mean perplexities, do thou thyself but hold thy tongue for one day: on the morrow, how much clearer are thy purposes and duties; what wreck and rubbish have those mute workmen within thee swept away when intrusive noises were shut out.”
In other words, speech may be silver but silence remains golden; silence is as deep as eternity, speech is as shallow as time. That’s also a Carlyle quote. I doubt if it will be enough to convert anyone who has traded texting for talking to shut up.
But, as I’ve written so often, there’s always hope.
© Copyright 2013