The Silence Exercise

The Silence Exercise December 10, 2014

I’ve been trying of late to incorporate more diverse assignments and methods of instruction in my teaching. Each semester now in my World Civilizations course, I ask students to write a short paper on what I call the “silence exercise.” As odd as it may seem, merely maintaining silence for a while can be a way of inhabiting strange worlds of the past. And it seems like a fitting way to conclude the course as we assess the implications of modernity on our everyday lives.

The assignment calls for 90 minutes of silence. Students are instructed to put away their smartphones and leave the presence of other people. They should just be still by themselves, then write a two-page paper reflecting on the experience and putting it in historical perspective. What does it feel like to be silent, to be without constant access to a smartphone? How is this part of our lifestyle now different than in premodern times?

So in recent weeks the 34 students (mostly freshmen) in my HIS 102 course fanned out in search of silence. Some found it in their dorm rooms, dorm basements, the chapel, nearby cross-country trails and farms. I was not expecting this, but no less than half a dozen of my students spent their time in tree stands. I had forgotten that it is hunting season in Kentucky.

Most appeared to take the assignment quite seriously. One student even “distanced himself from Facebook” for several days “in preparation for this activity.” The papers themselves—some banal, a few morbid, and many very personal—were a fascinating glimpse into the anxious, pulsating inner lives of 18-year-olds. As I’ve written before, it is a modest assignment than often gets immodest reactions. Here are some of my observations coupled with some excerpts of their writing:

Many wrote at length about how uncomfortable silence is for them.

  • “When I was faced with the first little bit of the silence, I was trying to keep my mind occupied because the state of nothingness scares me. At first I felt like I was going insane. I wasn’t used to being so free and open-minded.”
  • “The third thing that I noticed is that I had an eagerness to want to play music. The silence gave me a weird feeling that I wanted to fill. I felt that the music would fill this lack of feeling connected.”
  • “When I first began, I really didn’t know what to do. I could really feel myself getting anxious and wanted to get right on my phone to check Twitter or Instagram. Not doing so was tough, but I managed to get through the beginning and slowly it got easier.”
  • “Silence speaks volumes, but life isn’t lived in silence. Silence and noise must be balanced to live a thoughtful and full life.”

A few absolutely despised the assignment.

  • “The very thought of true silence can be terrifying.”
  • “I think that silence and contemplation is something to be avoided. Who would want to embrace such an awkward moment spent alone. If I had to do this every day or even once a week I think I would die.”
  • “When I first heard about this assignment, I though it would be pretty easy since I am a quiet person anyway. I was totally wrong. . . . I was so relieved when it was over.”

Others, by contrast, described the relief of silence.

  • From a parent of four young children: “There are days that in a moment of despair from sensory overload I will demand (usually with very little patience and a lot of frustration) that everyone go to their rooms for ‘quiet time’ and I will sit in the living room with all the lights off and just be still and silent. That should be a red flag, shouldn’t it? An internal alarm sounding? I think so.”
  • “While this time of silence was not necessarily monumental in the sense of what I realized or heard from God, it meant a lot to me. It seemed to change my whole day. It slowed me down and allowed me to really enjoy everything that was and had been going on around me. Later on that day, someone had asked me how my day was and I was so glad to report that it was an awesome day. They asked me why and I could not really remember why. But then I realized that it was because of this experiment. It just made my day so much better and actually felt a lot longer.”

Nearly all worried about their dependence on technology, obsession with social media, and lack of introspection.

  • “I felt embarrassed at how much I wanted the 90 minutes to be over so I could go back inside to see what texts and other notifications I had received.”
  • “I am convinced that it has squashed the attention spans of this generation like a bug. Five minutes on Twitter turns to ten on Instagram, then twenty on Facebook.”
  • “This time for me honestly was might be the first time in years that I sat in silence for a significant time without my phone.”
  • “Even as I write this paper, I have my headphones playing music to ‘help me concentrate’ by controlling what noise I hear or don’t hear. When did silence stop being a virtue and instead become an emptiness that needs to be filled?”

Quite a few described how silence and solitude paradoxically enhanced their sense of community.

  • “During my week off for the Thanksgiving holiday, I thought it would be appropriate that I give my time and attention to those around me physically than to those distant from me. This self-restraint alone has opened my eyes to how differently I act around my siblings and friends when I’m not constantly feeling at my pocket for the vibration that notifies me when someone out there responds to what I post and share.”

Many noted how difficult it is to escape entirely from artificial noise.

  • “On the other side of the woods is the Interstate. All throughout my time in the woods, I kept waiting and waiting for the noises to stop, or at least slow down, but that did not happen.”

A third or so described how their imagination began to flower. They fantasized, made up stories, and imagined themselves in historical scenarios (an inordinate number, unprompted, described the sounds and smells and horrors of trench warfare).

  • “I started to imagine how life was back then, like a whole century ago. Old people would probably just sit outside on their porch and just gaze out into the neighborhood. . . . I noticed I had a strong urge and desire to really want to go live in their time period.”

One student raged against technology.

  • “I have had a horrible curse of technology in my life. All electronics I have owned have all either had something wrong with it or they just all suddenly stopped. . . . Oh, how I hate how this world has become.”

Several felt their spirituality awakened.

  • “It is amazing how much God can speak to you when you simply put down your electronics for a short period of time and listen.”
  • “I began to just sit there and talk to God, which I can say I hadn’t done in a while before this.” “There was an incredible feeling of peace that I had that I cannot remember having in a long time.”

Some said that the experience sharpened their mental faculties.

  • “Before I would just acknowledge my problems and then push them to the back of my mind. This was different though. I actually thought through my situation and was able to reach a point of closure. This was a huge weight off my shoulders. In the future I intend to spend at least a portion of my week in quiet reflection.”

As Rod Dreher recently pointed out in a post entitled “Dear Modernity, I Love You Hard,” technological advancement can sure be nice. None of us (except for a few internet crazies) wants to go back to trepanation and other Civil War-era medicine! But I think it was good for my students, many of whom embody a Whiggish sensibility, to think about modernity’s limits.

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  • stefanstackhouse

    Of course, the experiment is still missing something. In the old days, only monks and the idle rich could just stay still in the midst of silence. For just about everyone else, the pervasive silence was experienced as they went about their day working hard. Given that most manual work creates at least some sound, it wasn’t quite complete silence either.

    Even in the pre-electrical days, towns and cities were far from being quiet places. At least during the daytime they were still quite noisy places.

  • davidrswartz

    Good point. This is something I sort of capture in another course. Students do manual labor for a couple of hours in a hauling-water exercise.

  • Even if we are unable to find a location of total silence, it is a good exercise to sit quietly and reflect. I believe we should all step away from our technology and devices for short times. In fact I am a high social media user, and I do not want to give it up, but I find times of silence assist me to become more focused on my work.

  • Julien Benney

    There is no doubt, as Sara Maitland has said in her 2008 ‘A Book of Silence’ that extreme quiet is terrifying, but is spiritually almost necessary to empty the self. It is not surprising that atheism is strongest in the noisy cities of Europe, South and East Asia and the Americas – prayer and reflection are not possible and are replaced by a focus on the self amidst the noise.

    That this was known on the other side of the culture was is clearly seen by AC/DC’s ‘Rock and Roll Aint Noise Pollution’ where the band says that rock and roll (which as AC/DC define it is extremely loud music that makes reflective silence out of the question) “will never die” – which as Dreher and Maitland show means traditional religion must die. In fact, AC/DC’s celebration of noise as a goal there and in ‘For Those About To Rock, We Salute You’ is a substantial part of their cultural legacy – I have told Benjamin Wiker that a chapter on AC/DC would by no means have been or be out of place in his ‘Architects of the Culture of Death’ or ‘10 Books that Screwed Up the World’.

    The truth that quiet is so essential for community is not really emphasised enough in most literature, but it is clear that with extreme quiet required self-restraint is of course essential – something I know from the amount of work I have done in large public libraries that are designed as special places for quiet study, and even from basic work like concentrating when I cycle on the road. In both cases my work or study is completely disturbed by noise – and even the loud noises I make on a computer keyboard do not help me reflect and think at all!

  • Doug Johnson

    The complete absence of auditory input is disturbing to almost all people but total elimination of human “noises” (talk, cars, industry, etc) is refreshing to the thinking mind. Starvation and isolation periodically is good for us. But I can’t convince anyone.


    In the PLUG-IN DRUG, Marie Winn says that television is an addictive drug: “When we think about addiction to drugs or alcohol we frequently focus on negative aspects, ignoring the pleasures that accompany drinking or drug-taking. And yet the essence of any serious addiction is a pursuit of pleasure, a search for a ‘high’ that normal life does not supply. It is only the inability to function without the addictive substance that is dismaying, the dependence of the organism upon a certain experience and an increasing inability to function normally without it. Thus people will take two or three drinks at the end of the day not merely for the pleasure drinking provides, but also because they ‘don’t feel normal’ without them.

    “Real addicts do not merely pursue a pleasurable experience one time in order to function normally. They need to repeat it again and again. Something about that particular experience makes life without it less than complete. Other potentially pleasurable experiences are no longer possible, for under the spell of the addictive experience, their lives are peculiarly distorted. The addict craves an experience and yet is never really satisfied. The organism may be temporarily sated, but soon it begins to crave again.

    “Finally, a serious addiction is distinguished from a harmless pursuit of pleasure by its distinctly destructive elements. Heroin addicts, for instance, lead a damaged life: their increasing need for heroin in increasing doses prevents them from working, from maintaining relationships, from developing in human ways. Similarly alcoholics’ lives are narrowed and dehumanized by their dependence on alcohol.

    “Let us consider television viewing in the light of the conditions that define serious addictions.

    “Not unlike drugs or alcohol, the television experience allows the participant to blot out the real world and enter into a pleasurable and passive mental state. The worries and anxieties of reality are as effectively deferred by becoming absorbed in a television program as by going on a ‘trip’ induced by drugs or alcohol. And just as alcoholics are only vaguely aware of their addiction, feeling that they control their drinking more than they really do (‘I can cut it out any time I want—I just like to have three of four drinks before dinner’), people similarly overestimate their control over television watching. Even as they put off other activities to spend hour after hour watching television, they feel they could easily resume living in a different, less passive style. But somehow or other, while the television set is present in their homes, the click doesn’t sound. With television pleasures available, those other experiences seem less attractive, more difficult somehow.

    “Finally it is the adverse effect of television viewing on the lives of so many people that defines it as a serious addiction. The television habit distorts the sense of time. It renders other experiences vague and curiously unreal while taking on a greater reality for itself. It weakens relationships by reducing and sometimes eliminating normal opportunities for talking, for communicating.”

    [p.p. 23-25, Marie Winn, THE PLUG IN DRUG; Penguin, 1977. ISBN – 0-14-007698-0]

  • Suburbanbanshee

    Why on earth would you stay silent while working? Unless somebody were around to boot you in the mouth, you’d talk to other people, whistle, sing, and otherwise amuse oneself. Hard manual labor makes you tired, not dead.

  • davidrswartz

    The silence exercise and the working exercise are different assignments. They’re allowed to work in community. 🙂