The value of beautiful, necessary silence


Shortly after the proclamation of the new pope, a reporter for U.S. television told his audience that the Catholics of Latin America “have waited 20 centuries for a pope to come from this region.”


There were, of course, no Catholics in Latin America until about 500 years ago. We all make mistakes, but in this case, the error is probably explained less by exuberance at the selection of a new pontiff than by the inexorable demand of the medium for gab unceasing.

Contrast the endless and largely pointless chatter of the modern world with the minutes Pope Francis spent standing silently on the balcony before addressing the thousands in St. Peter’s Square and the hundreds of millions around the world. The silence was beautiful and eloquent, projecting both a sense of peace and a sense of occasion. An even longer silence followed, when Francis asked the faithful to pray for him — a silence, evidently, that was mimicked in Catholic households and schools around the world.

We live in a loud time. Anything above 85 decibels can damage the ear if we listen to it long enough. On the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York, the traffic alone creates a good 79 decibels of sound. (And the decibel scale is logarithmic, so 79 decibels is 10 times as loud as 69 decibels — 69 being about the level of noise inside a large passenger jet during flight.) And according to the National Institutes of Health, the sound of music through headphones often runs — wait for it — about 110 decibels.

This loudness can create problems with our physical health. The larger challenge, however, isn’t so much the noise as its constancy. Silences are increasingly difficult to find. The endless chatter and clack and beep and blat is going to destroy democracy.


Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, was eloquent on the value of silence: “In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth; we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others; and we choose how to express ourselves. By remaining silent we allow the other person to speak, to express him or herself; and we avoid being tied simply to our own words and ideas without them being adequately tested. In this way, space is created for mutual listening, and deeper human relationships become possible.”

We need silence, in other words, to think both clearly and charitably. In a world of constant sound and stimulation, it is harder to be accurate in our reasoning and empathetic in our listening. Genuine democracy, the sense of our common project, cannot survive such corruption.

The ubiquity of the mobile phone has made us louder. All through history, until the past decade or so, people walking alone on the street usually walked in silence. No longer. If you pass 50 fellow pedestrians while strolling a city block, the chances are you have been forced to listen in on 45 conversations — unless, of course, you are too busy forcing your own conversation on others.

In the Catholic as so many other religious traditions, reflection and contemplation are admirable virtues. In the stifling silliness created by the merger of secularism and technology, they are horrendous vices.

Politicians and activists, commentators and bloggers are supposed to have instant responses to whatever news may arise. To go on the air and meet a difficult question with “I need to think that one over” is seen not as evidence of a reflective and thoughtful character but as an evasion, or perhaps a failure of the intellect. In the words of the theologian Cornelius Plantinga, “It’s boring to watch a person think.” Yet time to think matters — at least if we’re interested in getting the answers right.

Consider the game of chess. Under international rules, if a player’s mobile phone makes any sound during a tournament game, he or she loses immediately. Although the rule has come to be seen as a protection against cheating, its origin lies in a concern about distracting the other player. The sound interferes with clarity of thought.

If the complexities of the chess board require undistracted attention, how much more so the complexities of, for example, economic and fiscal policy? To reason our way to reliable answers, we need the time and space to think. Otherwise, we cannot really listen and reason but only react — and when we react rather than listen, the possibilities for genuine public conversation are debased. The reason politics nowadays seems to be all about yelling is that a different politics would require time and space, and peace and quiet.

Hannah Arendt, in The Life of the Mind, puts it this way: “Thinking is always out of order, interrupts all ordinary activities and is interrupted by them.” Yet we need to do it. Socrates, she reminds us, didn’t always have the answers, and wasn’t always interested in dialogue. Again and again, Arendt says, we see him going off alone to think.

All of which brings us back to the reporter and his error about 2,000 years of Latin American Catholicism. He was working without a script, reporting live in the midst of a crowd. His job was to fill the air with commentary, and (in Catholic terms) there was no time for the intellect to reflect upon the words that suggested themselves before the will gave consent to speak them.

That’s our problem in a nutshell. We live in a world that leaves us little time to contemplate.

We are busy people. Pursuing our thoughts in silent contemplation takes an investment of time that few can spare. Yet all of us need to patch together what bits of reflection we can. If we lack the time to seek out silent spaces, we lack the time to think clearly; and if we lack the time to think clearly, we lack the time to do democracy well.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama,” and the novel “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.”

© 2013, Bloomberg News

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