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Why Are We So Afraid of Silence?

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I'm sitting in a nice resort in Chesapeake bay. Before me, the sun is setting and the sky is glorious. If there were no Muzak and the fountains were turned off, this would be magical. And if it were in Kenya, everyone would gasp at the silence and the beauty. But I'm in Maryland, and I have to make an effort to notice how beautiful the setting is. The assault on my senses is so dense that the rest need to be woken up.

One function of the silence is to ensure that no one can hear anyone else's conversation. Noise is a buffer, more effective than cubicles or booth walls. I guess in theory we are all alone looking at the sunset. And for some people perhaps that is an idea of bliss. Or at least resort bliss.

I hate it. I hate people walking down the street listening to the soundtrack of their lives which responds to them but not their setting. I hate the overspill of sound which metro and subway riders are oblivious to because they notice no one and nothing around them. I hate the noise in elevators that tells us meaningless or desperate news or stock prices. I hate not being where I am or who I am: the studious American myth that everyone is their own narcissus, using technology to wallow in the pool of their own imagining.

This isn't just a peeve. If anyone still believes in such a thing as society (and please email me if you do) then it exists when we rub up against each other. When we overhear things we shouldn't and they make us think differently about who and where we are. When we bump into each other and rush to help. When we acknowledge our mutual failings and dreams and, just for a nanosecond, look each other in the eye and recognize that we exist together. I like friction.

But phones and soundtracks and Muzak and fountains replace genuine and unpredictable human contact with a seamless soundtrack from a bad movie and a cliché that makes us believe we must all be happy. After all, we've spent a fortune to spend a week out of the year, with a family we don't know, in a hotel we'll never see again but feels like all the hotels we've ever seen, going through the pretense of being picturebook all-American successful social units. Children overcharm their parents while adults overindulge their children until it isn't clear which is which. Let's all have fun; it's vacation; who cares about thinking or hearing or seeing or breathing. Let's all be George Clooneys and Julianne Moores in the movie that shows us what success should look like. Let's buy books called Quiet but avoid the real thing at all costs.

Shut off the fountains, turn off the music and let the landscape speak for itself. It is beautiful. If I have to overhear a stupid conversation or the mild admonishment of a parent to a child, that's fine. I'm don't mind if the couple next to me is tense or the kids are whiny. I'd even be happy to hear an honest argument, evidence of thinking. I'd like to know these teeth-perfect families don't just buy each other stuff but just occasionally can talk to one another. I would just like them to be where they are. Not in a fantasy. Not in a picture book. But here. Today. Breathing. Listening. Real. Aware that there are other people in the world.

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