The loss of silence in a connected culture


I’ve always been a morning person. One of the things I enjoy about the morning hours is the quietness of them. This could be partly related to growing up as the second oldest of eleven children. We had plenty of noise in our home. But there’s a calming effect for me in the stillness and quietness of the morning. In our present culture, quietness seems to be an endangered quality. So I invite you to take a few moments and reflect on the importance of silence. 

What do we lose without quietness? What role does silence have in a healthy, God-centered life?

Did you know that silence is considered a spiritual discipline? It’s usually included among the disciplines of abstinence along with the practice of solitude (being alone with God) and secrecy (living for an audience of One (see: Matthew 6:5-6; 25:34-40; Philippians 2:3; Hebrews 6:10).

The practices of silence, solitude and secrecy are indispensable parts of true spiritual growth. But in a media saturated culture dominated by technology, these disciplines are increasingly at risk. When I walk through our university town between classes most of those around me are either on cell phones or ear-plugged to iPods. Now I am as connected as the next guy (with iPhone, iPad, Lap top to prove it), but I am growing increasingly uneasy with the strength of distraction that comes with the connected life. I am troubled by what might be lost in the endless noise — by what we might not hear.

Although silence is not only about technology, we could all benefit from stepping back and recognizing potential liabilities that come with all the great opportunities and blessings of it.

  • Is it possible to be too connected?
  • Does social network facilitate deeper or more superficial community?
  • How does it affect communion with God?
  • Does our access to more information lead to more knowledge and wisdom?
  • And can we escape these connections sufficiently enough to experience the blessings and benefits of silence, solitude and secrecy?  

I suspect that the following description of silence would be foreign to most people.

“You can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and dimension all its own. It talks to me sometimes. . .  It has a strange, beautiful texture. It doesn’t always talk. Sometimes — sometimes it cries, and you can hear the pain of the world in it” (Danny Saunders)

The mother of toddlers might relish the thought of solitude and silence but the default for most of us is to hit a power switch and connect during our down time. Beyond televisions and radios, I don’t think of silence, solitude or secrecy in relation to phones, texting, voicemail, email, blogging, Facebook, and Twitter. Is it possible to be too available, too visible? 

Uncomfortably quiet

Have you ever thought of silence as an uncomfortable experience? Some people avoid silence and prefer noise. But what does it tell us when distraction and noise feel better than being alone with our thoughts?

Solitude and silence (as spiritual disciplines) should quiet, refresh and strengthen our hearts. When we practice silence and solitude in the secret place with God, our thoughts are quieted in His presence. “Be still and know that I am God” (psalm 46:10).

Take a time out:

“The best way to achieve silence during worship is to practice silence as part of our everyday lives. Many parents teach their children discipline through “time out” periods—when they are squirrelly or defiant or doing something they shouldn’t, they have a time out period in which they can think about their behavior and make other choices. The same is true and necessary for us older children, youths, and young and older adults. When we feel tense and testy, we need to take “time out”—just a few minutes to gather ourselves, to become quiet inside, to calm down and refocus. When this is a natural habit of our daily lives, then when silence is introduced at specific times during worship we are perfectly comfortable with it and know how to use this precious time to focus ourselves on God in a different way from how we are present to God during the rest of the service” (Cornelius Plantinga Jr.).

A Rhythm to learn: silence and speaking

There’s a time for everything, says the wise teacher, “a time to be silent and a time to speak” (3:7).

“But who knows which is which? Who knows how to tell time? Who knows when to speak up and when to keep still? Who knows when silence is golden and when it is lazy or even cowardly?”

“The wise know these things. Wise persons discern the deep grains and patterns of God’s world, and then they try to go with the grain. These are persons whose habits are always in season. They’ve got rhythm where silence and speech are concerned. And so they imitate God by not talking all the time. They’ve got more silences than words, and their silences are just as disciplined and just as thoughtful as their words. They speak only from the context of silence, and when they have nothing valuable to say, they fall silent again.”

“We have met wise people like this. They have high quality words because they have high quality silences. Sometimes their silences are eloquent. Wise speakers may say more or less than others, but usually less, and always less that needs to be taken back. They give the impression of speaking out of a stillness at their center, a quiet place in which they are at home with themselves, in touch with God, and hospitable to the voices of others.”

“Silence is the natural context for speaking, but also for listening. What do we hear if we pipe down for a while? We hear the voices of others—not just their words, but their voices. We hear a quaver in a macho voice, or strength in a quiet voice. We also listen for the sounds and the silences of God. The silences of God! So mysterious they are, and so deep. There is a time to be silent and a time to speak, and God has kept this calendar a lot longer than we have” (Cornelius Plantinga Jr.).

Losing the Rhythm

“But silence puzzles people. They meet a silence and they wonder what’s wrong. Or silence makes people restless. The effect is just the opposite of what you’d expect. You’d expect that people would enter a silence and fold their wings. You’d expect that inside a silence people would smooth out and settle down. But that’s not the way it goes. Oddly, a fair number of people find silence disquieting.”

“If you go to a big league sports event and the announcer asks for a moment of silence to honor some fallen hero, people will do it all right. People bow their heads, and the place gets quiet. But it’s never for a full moment. No, you get about twelve seconds of silence, and when it’s over there’s an explosion of cheering and whistling, as if the whole place had been holding its breath and had let it out at once. Twelve seconds of silence, and then we’re glad that’s over, so life can get back to normal.”

“Silence puzzles people and it makes them restless. So they try to get rid of it. People haul their boom boxes to the seashore so that they don’t have to live in the silence between the rolling of surf and the crying of gulls. People crank up the mega-bass in their car stereos and cruise through a neighborhood, blowing all the birds out of the trees. People on subway trains conduct noisy and personal phone conversations. People turn on talk shows and fill their homes with hours of chatter. Some of this chatter is hostile. Some of it, amusing. But mostly the chatter is pointless, what Ephesians calls ‘unwholesome talk.’”

“The truth is that silence is part of the created rhythm of human life. The question of whether we need any silences goes to who we are, not just to what we want. That’s why a loss of silence is so serious. A loss of silence is as serious as a loss of memory, and just as disorienting. Silence is, after all, the natural context from which we listen. Silence is also the natural context from which we speak. A culture that fills in our silences therefore disorients us. It rips away our frame. It removes the background, the base of intelligibility for all our listening and speaking.” (Cornelius Plantinga Jr.).

Steve Cornell

About Wisdomforlife

Just another worker in God's field.
This entry was posted in Anxiety, Assurance, Attitude, Change, Character, Christian life, Christian worldview, Comfort, Counseling, Mind Renewal, Seeking God, Silence, Spiritual Detox, Spiritual disciplines, Spiritual growth, Spiritual inventory, Spiritual transformation. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The loss of silence in a connected culture

  1. NicK says:

    Hi Steve,

    the passage should be psalm 46:10. my peace and quiet was becoming lost when I was struggling to find 46:1. =)

  2. Amy L says:

    (This is Walt writing) Are you familiar with composer John Cage’s piece called 4’33”? It is a “composition” that consists entirely of rests, to last for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The idea was for the performer(s) and the audience to experience the “music” of the world around them. (I am giving neither endorsement or criticism of the piece, just letting you know what it is.)

    I think that churches often ignore the need for times of silence and reflection.

  3. ladysheepdog says:

    Having four kids and being around alot of activity & noise, I have enjoyed waiting rooms for a long time now. I can just sit there and do nothing, and noone judges me for just sitting there. I hardly ever pick up a magazine while I’m there. I don’t have internet access on my cell phone. I don’t even have any full version games on my phone, just the two minute demos, so I don’t sit and play those. Once I did call my mother to chat while I was in a waiting room, but just once. It irritates me that every waiting room has a tv on. I wish they would turn them off.

    Two thumbs up to more silence in our world.

  4. Pingback: Danny saunders | Esicoatings

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