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Silent Day

Photo by Sean MacEntee

I bet the Earth and all its critters love Christmas day. Not the religious part, particularly. But, with due respect for those of us who follow different paths, Christmas is pretty close to an international holiday. And that means as we emerge into the sun on Christmas day, the place is quieter than any other day of the year. You can almost hear the planet sigh.

Okay, so it’s not an altogether silent day or silent night. Some people get motorcycles for Christmas. Still, we humans make a lot more racket most of the time. If you go for a walk early on Christmas morning, you are bound to notice that there’s less noise than usual. The holly in the halls has, however briefly, muted the leaf blowers, which on any other day reach levels of High Infidelity approached only by the unholy demons of simpler times.

“There are no places on earth that are free of human-caused noise 100 percent of the time. That’s history,” says Gordon Hempton, co-author of One Square Inch of Silence. Holy hell. That’s an ugly legacy. Whatever you do, don’t read this out loud to anyone. Give peace a chance.

In terms of planetary impact, we are like that amplifier in Spinal Tap. Our volume control goes to 11. Studies show that 10 to 15 million Americans suffer hearing problems due to exposure to too much noise. If we won’t turn it down, our bodies do it for us, I guess.

All our religious heroes sought a silent place to reach Enlightenment or hear God talking. So somehow we know our noise is no blessing. Buddha sat under a fig tree near a small village now known as Bodh Gaya. Sadly, the Wikipedia entry for that village says the town is now “somewhat noisy.” I hope this doesn’t mean that Maitreya, the future Buddha supposed to bring us all to Enlightenment, can’t find a quiet place to get it done.

Anyway, there was Moses and the mountaintop, Jesus and the desert, Muhammad and the cave, Thoreau and the pond. If we want to make a good start at reconciling our various religions we might consider a message that seems central to all of them. The Quiet Game is not just for kids anymore.

Nobody ever accused us of actually behaving like our philosophers and spiritual masters teach us to behave, though. Our most popular Christmas carol is called “Jingle Bells” for crying out loud. If we really wanted to honor the spirit of our enlightened ones we could at least de-bell the sleigh before heading off into the snowy woods.

In my experience, one of the great advantages of early adulthood is not that we’re out of the nest and on our own, it’s that some of us, at least, get up early and travel to the old family home on Christmas morning. It’s at this time that I first noticed the sudden stillness and quiet. It’s almost as if all really is calm and bright.

It makes you wonder what the Earth’s collective consciousness must be feeling on this day. When we quiet down so, do the deer relax with us, or do they suspect a trick, a deadly ambush in the works? Can the trees once again hear little swooshes as the snow falls from their limbs? Can young field mice hear for the first time the lapping of water on the pond’s shore and wonder what that crazy little sound is?

As one of Thomas Carlyle’s characters puts it in Sartor Resartus, “silence is of eternity.” Human noise is a death-rattle, a sign of the transient and the terminable. That we try to hide the news of our mortality behind a numbing pandemonium is one of our most comic ironies. No wonder the religious heroes and thinkers who seek to orient us in the Peculiar Universe say in so many words, “First thing you do? Shut up.”

Just for the day I want to keep this image in mind: the Earth turning into the Christmas day light while all the players on the worldly stage remember to forget their lines, not struck dumb but welcoming, instead, a silence that takes on the colors of the sun.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith