Where silence is, man is observed by silence. Silence looks at man more than man looks at silence. Man does not put silence to the test; silence puts man to the test.
Silence is the only phenomenon today that is "useless". It does not fit into the world of profit and utility; it simply is. It seems to have no other purpose; it cannot be exploited… It gives things something of its own holy uselessness, for that is what silence itself is: holy uselessness.
The basic phenomena take us, as it were, back to the beginning of things; we have left behind us what Goethe called "the merely derived phenomena" with which we normally live. It is like a death, for we are left on our own, faced with a new beginning—and so we are afraid.
Still like some old, forgotten animal from the beginning of time, silence towers above all the puny world of noise; but as a living animal, not an extinct species, it lies in wait, and we can still see its broad back sinking ever deeper among the briers and bushes of the world of noise. It is as though this prehistoric creature were gradually sinking into the depths of its own silence. And yet sometimes all the noise of the world today seems like the mere buzzing of insects on the broad back of silence.
Max Picard, The World of Silence
Reflection – This is an obscure book by an obscure author that a couple of us at MH have discovered recently, and that I am enjoying very much. The author writes with poetic, almost mystical conviction on what I think is an important subject, perhaps one of the most important subjects there is, in fact.
Our world today flees from silence. There was a study at the University of Virginia recently that was much reported in the media, where a large percentage of people, when asked to simply sit in silence without any distractions for a mere fifteen minutes, preferred to administer mild electric shocks to themselves rather than do that.
‘Silence puts man to the test’. And so we flee from it. We surround ourselves with distractions—electronic devices on which we can play games, listen to music, watch movies, chatter away or follow the twittering chatter of others. It is not that all these devices are evil and must be rejected (it would be rather hypocritical for me to suggest that), but rather they must be put away regularly, turned off frequently, silenced daily.
It is a very deep matter, this necessity of silence for the human person. It is this whole business of uselessness, of a non-utilitarian mode of being. Our world today, insofar as it cluttered by noise and chatter and ceaseless activity, is a world of utilitarian values. What use is it? That is the only question. If something is not delivering some value to us--diverting us, feeding us, informing us—then it is useless and to be thrown aside.
But as with things, so it is with people, right? We cannot adopt a utilitarian attitude towards life without extending that towards the people in our life too. And of course then we have the phenomenon of people being thrown away, or at best (and what a sad and pathetic best it is) judged and valued by how ‘useful’ they are. An insecure and terrible way of being.
And so we have the need for this holy uselessness of silence. Picard is right—silence is the one thing that cannot be exploited economically. It is available to us, free, at the simple price of turning off all the sources of noise in our life. And it is a very deep matter—Picard is a very deep writer indeed on this subject.