We live in an increasingly noisy world, and simply do not spend much time being aware that there is a great deal to be said (quietly, of course!) for making time to stand aside from it.
Silence offers enormous benefits to those who live in an increasingly noisy world. The truth of that was brought home to me during a holiday which my wife and I have just spent in a cottage in Northumberland, to the south of Hadrian’s Wall. The cottage, one of a group of five, is located on a hillside, looking down a valley, and with more hills — many miles of them — rising on the other side of the valley. Because of the steepness of the valley, the main road which runs between the two areas of hills is not visible from the cottage. Nor are the vehicles on it audible.
The silence, in short, is all-pervading. It is not total; sheep grazing in the close field provide a quietly bleating reminder of their presence. As evening draws in, large flocks of birds land on the fence on the far side of the sheep field, providing a similarly quiet reminder of their presence.
Our home, in a large village close to Cambridge, sits on a fairly busy road, and, by both night and day, we are conscious of the sound of traffic. It is not a cause of trouble for us, because one very quickly gets used to background noise, and it soon becomes just that: background noise.
When I lived in London in the late 1950s, I had a flat on a busy main road. My first thought was that I would enjoy no peace, but within days, as in our village location now, I experienced no problem. Background noise can quite easily be ignored.
All that said, the silence of our Northumberland setting offered us a huge benefit. We know the area, and the group of cottages, well, and have always enjoyed staying there. This, however, was the first occasion on which we had been truly conscious of the silence, and truly appreciative of it.
There were good reasons for this, as we quickly recognised. The main reason was that I have not been in good health, and very clearly needed to rest and relax. (On previous visits, we have been much more active, walking quite long distances across the beautiful countryside. This time, I had to accept that walking must be limited, and must be replaced by relaxation.)
We deliberately, therefore, organised our time in such a way that we would ensure activity would be carefully “rationed”, and interspersed with equally carefully planned rest periods. The opportunity to sit in the cottage, looking out through large windows over the fields and hills, proved to be not only beneficial from the point of view of my health, but also quite surprisingly — for a naturally active person — most enjoyable.
This should, of course, not have been surprising. The value of silence has long been widely recognised. William Penn wrote that “true silence is the rest of the mind; it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.” And in the words of Leonardo da Vinci, “Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.” Go back even further, and we have Confucius writing “Silence is the true friend that never betrays.”
I shall not offer excuses for not having had those well-known truths in my mind. We live in an increasingly noisy world, and like, I suspect, a great majority of people, I simply do not spend much time being aware that there is a great deal to be said (quietly, of course!) for making time to stand aside from it.
In this particular case, circumstances made me recognise that there was a strong argument for making a conscious effort to benefit from the possibility of silence. Quite frankly, I was not at all sure what my reaction to that would be. Would I genuinely enjoy the silence, or would I, rather, see it as something that, in my particular current circumstances, I just had to put up with? (My friends and family, being only too aware that I have always enjoyed talking, and always been active in essentially non-silent environments, will probably be surprised to learn that this chance of silence was one of the most enjoyable, and undoubtedly one of the most beneficial, experiences that I have had.)
I can only add that if anyone of my readers has the opportunity to stand aside for a short time from the noise of normal life and replace it with even quite a short period of silence, I can strongly recommend them to seize it.