We are losing a treasure

From quite a young age, I was often left alone. My mother was suddenly widowed and left with a young child to bring up. Money was scarce and it was hard to make ends meet. As soon as she possibly could, my mother went back to work to support us both and I became what is today called “a latchkey kid”. In those days, I often suffered from bronchitis and was then kept home from school and not allowed out to play with the other kids. All in all, I spent a lot of time on my own.

There are two words to describe the state of being alone: loneliness and solitude. In my case, being alone was always solitude, never loneliness. I never minded being on my own and always found plenty to occupy me. We didn’t have a TV and we turned on the radio only in the evenings. My solitude was therefore a quiet world, one that was filled and peopled by my imagination.

A quiet place: Golders Green Crematorium
A quiet place: Golders Green Crematorium

Some people, when they are alone, like to create the semblance of company by turning on the radio or the TV or by playing music. I never do. I find that a background noise either disappears from consciousness (in which case, why bother with it in the first place?) or becomes irritating. That is not to say that I do not enjoy certain sounds, such as good music or conversation. But if I play music, then it is to listen to it, not to run it as a background noise. To me, one of the most agreeable sounds is complete silence or, at least, that almost-silence in which the occasional sound stands out in a meaningful way, like birdsong in a quiet woodland.

Nature has conspired to help me in this. Over the last few years, I have suffered a loss of hearing. At first the diminution was mild but it gradually increased to the point where conversation was becoming difficult and I was persuaded to seek assistance in the form of digital hearing aids, those devices that I often refer to in my blog as my “dolbies”.

When I first wore my hearing aids outside, I was horrified by the volume of sound hitting my ears. Was this really what the world sounds like? I still don’t know the answer to that because there is no way of letting someone else know what you are hearing so that you can make a comparison. All I can say is that, in the absence of an ‘off’ button, I often switch my hearing aids to the Bluetooth setting, which has the same effect.

Being sensitive about noise and my hearing has made me aware of other things. For example, compared with the world of my childhood, today’s world is almost insanely noisy. I am sure people living under the Heathrow flight path will agree with me. This fact – the noisiness of the world – is often remarked upon, of course, as are the deleterious effects that it has on our health and emotional stability. Less often mentioned is the effect it has on behaviour. I read somewhere that the calls of birds living in cities are louder and more piercing that those of the same species living in the countryside. In the same way, people in cities, in seems to me, no longer talk normally but at an increased volume, almost (and sometimes actually) shouting.

When the Walkman first appeared, it was hailed as a novelty and anyone wearing earphones in the street was noticed and pointed out. No longer. As I go about in the streets, the buses and tubes, the shops and cafes, it seems to me that every other person is wearing earphones, and not small ones, either, but often gigantic ones that look as if they belong in a recording studio.

Why people have to blot out the audible world with a barrier of sound is an interesting question, but what concerns me here is that people today seem to have developed a need for noise that is so imperious that they have to carry noise-making equipment with them wherever they go. I find this worrying, not merely because they are damaging their hearing and making it difficult to talk to them, but because it implies that the already frighteningly high level of noise has come to be accepted as normal. We are in serious danger of losing an irreplaceable treasure, the treasure of silence.

I dutifully wear my “dolbies” when out and about in order not to have to ask people to repeat themselves too often and in the hope of having some idea of what is going on around me, but not when I am at home alone. There I can relax with my natural hearing. It is also a pleasure to take them off at night before going to bed when the world becomes a more peaceful place.

If things continue to evolve as at present, we will soon all be wearing headphones, not hi-fi devices for listening to music, but noise-cancelling headphones of the sort worn in factories and helicopters. Perhaps these will incorporate Bluetooth so that we can also wear microphones and speak directly into one another’s ears in order to by­pass the ear-killing din around us. We will then move about in an artificially silenced world, insulated and isolated like astronauts or deep-sea divers, from an environment that threatens to shatter our all-too-delicate sense of hearing altogether.

In the meantime, those of us who speak out against the drowning of meaningful sound in an endless storm of noise do so in vain as our words dissolve into silence against the hard plastic of earphones throbbing to the beat of rock music.

Copyright © 2010 SilverTiger, https://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.


About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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12 Responses to We are losing a treasure

  1. AEJ says:

    I suffer from tinnitus so there is no such place of silence for me. It is more comforting to have some background noise around me than to have none, which leaves me alone with the ringing and buzzing.

    We have a co-worker who wears earbuds while at work — we think with no music playing — simply to ward off friendly chatter and questions. This is our guess. She even wears them to the restroom and as she’s out walking in the halls.

    • SilverTiger says:

      I can understand that not everyone is as enamoured of quiet as I am and, especially if one suffers from a condition such as tinnitus, gentle background sound may be an advantage.

      However, what is important here as elsewhere, is choice: one should be able to choose whether one has quiet or noise, not have noise imposed upon one willy nilly. People who live in towns have to put up with a lot of noise that is both unpleasant and unnecessary.

      The most egregious use of earplugs or earbuds that I encountered was when a student came into one of my classes and sat in the front row, with his in place. I told him to remove them. He seemed genuinely surprised, claiming that whatever he was listening to didn’t prevent him from hearing me also. I wasn’t having this and he removed them.

  2. Reluctant Blogger says:

    Yes, I am always amazed that more people seem to have headphones on when they are walking, than don’t.

    I like solitude. I always have done. I love music and often listen to music or if I am running I like to have music as it takes my mind off the effort. But every day I walk an hour (half hour each way to the school) and I never have music. And I get very cross if anyone tries to walk with me – I often walk more and more slowly so as not to catch up someone I know who is walking just in front of me. I love that time. Although I tend to daydream rather than listen to any sound I think.

    But my children always seem to have some noise going on – the playstation, music. Getting Harry to come down to dinner is hardwork as he is always plugged into something and can’t hear all the hollering.

    • SilverTiger says:

      Modern people seem addicted to noise. We liked noise too when we were kids but arguably not as much as the present generation who cannot even talk to one another without shouting so that everyone willy nilly becomes a party to the conversation.

      A pet hate of mine is people who try to negotiate with bus drivers and shop assistants while simultaneously holding a conversation on their mobiles. I think this is extremely bad-mannered, perhaps even worse than doing so with earphones screwed into their ears.

      Perhaps I should do a post on “My pet hates” but I fear it would be very long!

  3. BFG says:

    I could end up writing reams on the subject of silence (but rest assured, I won’t :). Not here, anyway. Well, not much of a ream.)

    I’m with you on the radio as background – I had friends who would turn it on first thing in the morning and off last thing at night, but I never got into the habit. Likewise TV – I only put it on if I want to watch something, but some of my nieces and nephews used to switch theirs on as background (and then go off outside to play – hah).

    Back in the day when I lived in Cowley, Oxfordshire, not a hundred yards from the busy Oxford bypass, I had no idea just how much I tuned out the traffic noise until I went to stay with friends in the wilds around Burford (the hubby was a zookeeper at Cotswold Wildlife Park). The silence was almost deafening, and it took a couple of days for my hearing to adjust.

    When I went back to Cowley days later, I was conscious of the constant traffic noise for several hours until my brain tuned it back out again.

    Later I went to visit the same friends when they had moved to Forest Hill in London, and suffered both auditory and visual overload – so bad that the first night, every time I closed my eyes all I could see were traffic lights and traffic, and all I could hear was traffic noise. It took a little while to adjust to that too.

    Since I moved to the States (Los Angeles) fifteen years ago I have come to value The Quiet. We live on the border of Burbank and LA in a small oasis of peace, quiet, and greenery. We’ve lived in the middle of the concrete jungle (Van Nuys, on the flight path to the airport there, and close to the 405 freeway) and found it soul-destroying; by chance a dozen years ago we stumbled across an apartment complex tucked away in the Toluca Hills, and we’ve been here ever since.

    Wild horses couldn’t drag us away from here (although eviction might). Come to think of it, wild horses would probably keep us here indefinitely 🙂 We’re right next door to Griffith Park, which, among other things, is something of a wildlife refuge.

    There’s little traffic noise (surprising for a 22 building, 1200+ apartment complex) and very little neighbour noise nuisance (and if there is, a quick phone call to the office generally takes care of it), and although the deer don’t wander through the complex like they used to, there’s still enough wildlife (squirrels, birds, the occasional gecko, coyote, skunk and racoon) to keep us and our two “rescue” cats happy.

    There are rattlesnakes at times, apparently, but we’ve never encountered one (this is the desert, after all, something that many people don’t associate with this neck of the woods).

    On the few occasions that I venture out onto the street (to catch a bus) the noise can be overwhelming and I’m glad to get back into peace, quiet and sanity.

    We’re very close to a local airport but luckily the flight path only comes close to us if the wind’s in the wrong direction; the rest of the time there’s an occasional distant rumble, and maybe a police helicopter or two, but they’re all such rarities that we actually make an effort to look outside to see what the commotion is about.

    I like to be able to hear myself think, so this is Nirvana for me. No doubt in the vast open spaces of other states (or even other countries), dwellers there are wondering what all the fuss is about – they may have spent much of their lives in near-silence and perhaps welcome cacophony as a distraction, but not this one-time country boy. You don’t really miss things like this until you lose them, and then when you get them back, you’re not keen to lose them again, no matter what the attraction.

    • SilverTiger says:

      It’s often in such contrasts that we come to realize a situation that our subconscious has suppressed or “tuned out”. In my case, it was the quasi restoration of my original level of hearing by the hearing aids. In other cases, such as yours, it is staying in different places with difference intensities of noise.

  4. WOL says:

    @ Reluctant Blogger — Your walks are a way for you to indulge in reverie which you can’t acheive when someone is trying to interact with you.

    Kids today build a wall of noise around themselves, I think. Every time I go to my folks’ house, the TV is at a deafening volume. My dad has almost lost his hearing, and my mom is loosing hers. Both are in “dolbies.” I, on the other hand, depend on my hearing for my livelihood, so I am rather protective of it. I don’t go for loud music. One thing I like about the place I live now is that it is relatively quiet. A some traffic noise and there are a couple of what I call “thumpers” — young men with huge sound systems in their cars that have the base turned way up — who work at the assisted living facility across the street from me. Those are so annoying. I wish I had access to a maze that I could walk. Walking can be so meditative. There just aren’t any good places to walk here where you can walk for a sustained period of time and tune out the world. What would be great would be a hedge maze — not a puzzle maze where you have to guess which way to take, but a meditation maze that if you went in one end and just kept walking, you’d eventually come out the other end. The hedge would give privacy and solitude so you could just take your mind off the lead and let it run free. I’ve started building a “country estate” dream house — a maze like that that would be great for one of the gardens. . . .

    • SilverTiger says:

      A maze might be a good idea – or a country house with acres and acres of grounds!

      We have “thumpers” here too. I think they have some mistaken idea that their loud music makes them seem macho whereas in fact they just look silly. That doesn’t prevent the nuisance they cause, though.

  5. Heather says:

    My partner, who drives shuttle bus for a living, is always talking to me about all the people who get on his bus and never seem to connect with anything or anyone around them. They are so wired into their I-pods or cell phones it is as though nothing else in the world exists. I wonder what it will be like in 50 years?

    • SilverTiger says:

      With Bluetooth devices now available, it isn’t always easy to see whether someone muttering in the street or on the bus is talking on the phone or to himself. I notice people avoiding these characters, thinking they may be “nutters”!

      I can’t imagine what it will be like in 50 years from now. I have see suggestions that mobile phones will come to be all-encompassing devices and that they will be inserted into the body, perhaps inlaid in a tooth. It will then be quite impossible to distinguish the nutter from someone engaged in a phone call!

  6. WOL says:

    It is a medically proven phenomenon that exposure to loud low frequency noise causes the body to release adrenaline. This causes a sort of “speed” high that many teens and young adults find exhilerating — That’s one of the reasons kids enjoy rock concerts and why the music gives them a “rush” — The “thumpers” are adrenaline junkies. (It’s also one of the reasons fights break out at concerts.) This is also what many people find appealing about horror films, roller coasters, etc. — the “thrill” (adrenaline rush) they get from it.

    • SilverTiger says:

      Maybe I’m allergic to adrenaline, then. I dislike loud noise and positively avoid horror films, especially those showing violence. In fact, if I am watching a film and violence starts, I get up and go away. My argument is that there is already enough violence and cruelty in the world without making up more for entertainment.

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