Silence and aloneness

One of my current favourite books is Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence. A young work colleague and I were discussing what we were reading and she was interested to hear such a book existed.  

She described to me the three day “solo” she did on Outward Bound a few years earlier that she had found challenging and more enjoyable than she expected. She said it was the longest time she’d spent not speaking to anyone and was proud that she could go that long, but was not in any hurry to repeat it. 

It made me reflect on my own experiences of silence. It’s not unusual for me to spend a weekend, from Friday night to Monday morning, not speaking to anyone. But this isn’t really silence, in that I listen to podcasts, watch TV, and of course am surrounded by sounds of people: voices in the street, doors slamming, cars driving past etc. I may not be speaking but I don’t feel encased in silence either. 

When I had the beach house, I could go three weeks without speaking to a soul. There was next to nothing in the way of traffic noise (rush hour consisted of three cars driving by on their commute into the city an hour and a half away). There were no people around. I would go for my daily walk and encounter no one, not even a passing car. There was just birdsong, and the soft and rhythmic thump of the waves on the beach. And the chatter in my head. 

Years ago when I was doing my doctorate I did two summers of field work. In the first, over a period of 2 months I was entirely alone for a week to 10 days at a time, living in a tent in the forest at about 2500m. I was collecting samples during the day and rising and sleeping with the sun. There were plenty of sounds around me but no human voices. It was true solitude and I loved it. The silence was comfortable and even welcoming. Human noises would have been cause for alarm. 

Several years prior I had spent two weeks on a tramping trip in the arctic, on Baffin Island. I wasn’t alone, but I experienced a different kind of silence there. The huge expanses of ice and snow, and the sound of the wind, combined to create an absorbent silence, the kind of silence that swallows sound. Shouting made no difference. The wind snatched away sound, or it sank into the snow. 

What I came to realise is that I enjoy silence. I prefer it. Extreme silence, like that on Baffin Island, is undoubtedly challenging, but for me the other experiences of silence have been and continue to be enjoyable and even necessary. 

Silence, be it an absence of conversation or an absence of human sounds altogether, seems to be a major challenge for many people and is the most cited obstacle to living alone that I hear. For me, silence is a reason to live alone. It is restorative. It lets me breathe freely. 

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