Essay: There is no comfortable silence and no silent comfort

First posted in January, 2005

"Soon silence will have passed into legend. Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation...Tooting, howling, screeching, booming, crashing, whistling, grinding, and trilling bolster his ego."

- Jean Arp


There is no quiet in a city. There is noise everywhere.

Or perhaps it is more appropriate to say that there is no comfortable silence and no silent comfort.

Silence is found in pockets, here and there. There's the quiet of a small bookstore, the calm of a nearly empty boutique, but you can't relax in these places; people want things from you, want your money, and you've bought enough. There are museums, perhaps, but they are spartan and cool and lacking in comfortable seats and you have to keep moving, have to keep looking at what's presented to you, you can't really just sit and think, and museums are rarely free and even more rarely deserted. There's the library, but they'll not allow for the enjoyment of tea or coffee while you read. There are parks, but even in the penetrating cold of January there are always other people with the incessant clack of their passing shoes against the pavement.

Should you find comfort, you are rarely if ever alone in your discovery; invariably there will be others clamoring for the space. And while they seek the comfort, they are not comfortable. Not in the silence that you cherish. They feel they need to fill that uncomfortable void with their chatter and their noise, the talk of their boring lives and their inane existences. Alone, without a companion of their own in that space with whom to converse, they cling desperately to their cellular phones and make those vital calls that simply cannot wait.

They have no idea that they're destroying the very thing you crave, and they wouldn't care if they did.

They have no concept of how pleasant it would be if they could only discover stillness in their minds for a portion of the day, quiet from the world. How could they possibly know? They are sharing this same cramped space with you and all these other humans. Thinking for a single moment that all of them could be silent for more than an instant - a single, coordinated instant - well, it's a dream not based in any sort of true reality. The shattering of glass against the floor heard above the din of the café gives them pause for but a fraction of a second, and only because they're curious as to who's at fault and hoping desperately that it isn't them. The loss of thousands and thousands of lives in a terror attack or a war or a natural disaster will perhaps give them reason to observe an astounding two or three or even five minutes of silence, but only if there are other people watching, and it can't be sustained for long. There's too much to do, you see. Too much going on. There's no time for silence in their lives.

You could attempt to extricate yourself from it all, to get away from them. You could sit alone in the quiet of a residential room claimed just for yourself, but even if you can't hear the cars on the street outside, the walls of your room border on other rooms filled with other people who fill their uncomfortable silences with background noise. And even when they turn off the music and the news and the televisions you can hear them. Twenty-four hours a day, someone in the building is moving, and you can hear them. You can hear them laughing and talking to each other as they come home after the party disperses, you can hear them take a two a.m. shower to cleanse the smoke from their hair, you can hear them at three a.m. pacing the floor with insomnia, you can hear them making their four a.m. snack, you can hear them flushing the toilet before dawn.

There is no quiet in a city. There is noise everywhere.

There is no comfortable silence and no silent comfort.

And you are never alone, though you may feel as if you are.


I could not exist in the city, though I understand why many do and why many could live nowhere else.

As for me, if I must put up with incessant noise, let it be the howl of the wind through the trees and the patter of rain on the roof and the calling of birds for their mates.

If there are people nearby, let them be humans from whom I can escape and be alone, removed from their movements and their conversations when I need the space. Let them understand why I need this without feeling hurt.

I will visit the city to enjoy its rewards, but I will always be happier to remain a visitor.


"The quieter you become, the more you can hear."

- Ram Dass