Erling Kagge has journeyed to the North Pole, the South Pole, and climbed Mount Everest: the first person in the world to do so. In addition to being an attorney, an art collector and a publisher, he has written six books on a variety of subjects including philosophy. But I would venture that his most formidable challenge occurred in his own home in Oslo, when over Sunday dinner he attempted to convince his three teenage daughters that “the world’s secrets are hidden in silence.”
Kagge’s most recent book, “Silence in an Age of Noise” (Pantheon, 2017) grew out of that doomed conversation and his more successful attempt in a lecture at St. Andrews University to explain why silence had become so important to him. After that lecture, which had begun by observing a moment of silence, he went to a pub with a group of students. In contrast to his daughters, who weren’t exactly captivated by their father’s enthusiasm for silence, the university students were enthralled by the subject. They asked Kagge: “What is silence? Where is silence? Why is it more important now than ever?” His book provides thirty-three attempts to answer these questions.
As I write this blog tonight I am wrapped in a shroud of silence. It is quite late as I sit here in our cottage on St. Simons Island. There are stretches of time at this hour when silence is your closest companion on the island. A fog has rolled in off the Atlantic Ocean. The sky overhead is overcast, graphite and silver granite, the full moon making only a general impression through the clouds. The whole earth feels wrapped in spun cotton. It is a season when, mercifully, few tourists make their way to the island. The only sounds I’ve noticed for the past hour are the occasional drips of moisture gathered from the mist and fog falling onto the ground outside my window. Even that is muffled in the heavy air. The silence is so rich, so deep, an emptiness of sound lacking nothing at all in its completeness, a fullness that invites me to rest my mind in its soft, capacious folds. Silence is such a luxury to which we treat ourselves too seldom. I feel that in these moments especially.
The opposite of silence is, of course, noise. Not purposeful speech, not the sounds of friends talking, or lovers whispering, or children laughing, but noise. That distracting background accompaniment to most modern life. Traffic. Horns and sirens. Talk radio. Talking heads television. Jabbering. Nattering. Meaningless chatter. Angry arguments. Confusion. Pandemonium. The distracting cacophony that provides the soundtrack of too many of our lives far too often.
Kagge says that wonder is one of the greatest gifts of silence. Silence nurtures wonder. Silence creates sonic space for us to pay attention to all the small things that matter most. Noise, by contrast, just distracts and confounds us, deludes us, making it impossible to notice the reality that deserves our wonder.
Recently I was leading a retreat on what I call wisdom spirituality for a group of Christians. Somewhat like Kagge and his university students, we began the retreat by spending ten minutes in silence, eyes closed, attending only to our breathing. At the end of the ten minutes, I asked the group to reflect on their experience.
No one spoke up until one man said, “I just don’t get what I’m supposed to get from this. What good is it?”
To which I responded, “It is good for nothing. It is not useful. Let’s start there. Not by requiring it to serve a purpose. What was it like to sit in silence for ten minutes?”
Then there was a dam-break of reflections.
“Well, I heard a lawn mower outside,” said one person. “I felt somehow that I was resting from my thoughts, even while my thoughts kept passing through my head,” said another. “I could feel my heart beating. Heck, I think I could hear Frank’s heart beating sitting next to me!”
“Be still and know I am God,” scripture tells us. Enter into the silence, and experience the wonder of what is real and true and beautiful, aware that sometimes it is only the good for “nothing” that is capable of opening our hearts to the God who is beyond all things, literally the God who is “No Thing.”
I remember one morning, a couple of years ago, stepping outside of my son and daughter-in-law’s home when they lived in Atlanta. It was early morning, before the city had fully awakened. Although their home sat in the middle of Buckhead, a colony of hills and trees in the midst of an enormous urban area, a small nature preserve insulated their backyard from the street noise. For just a few moments before the city began to stir, there was stillness and quiet. Silence, open and empty. The sharp cold breeze bit my face under a clear sky, the dawn giving way to the day, the winter wind whispering through the tops of the pines. I couldn’t help but smile with joy and with wonder at such a world as this.
Kagge describes the experience of trekking to the South Pole, how the silence and solitude encouraged him to notice the subtleties of the world around him. “At home,” he writes, “there’s always a car passing, a telephone ringing, pinging, or buzzing…. There are so many noises that we barely hear them all. Here [on a polar expedition] it was different. Nature spoke to me in the guise of silence. The quieter I became, the more I heard.”
A few moments ago the sound of the water gathering, dripping stopped. I wonder what might be hidden in what I won’t hear next.