Background Noise: I’m Afraid of Silence

When I was in 8th grade, our class practiced a daily moment of silence. It was a simple exercise, but one I nearly always failed. Our teacher would nod and point to the clock, indicating it was time for us to sit calmly at our desks. Some of my classmates closed their eyes, as if imagining they’d been transported to a beautiful sun-kissed beach blanketed by swirly clouds.

I could find no such serenity in this moment, for I usually made the mistake of glancing up at my friend Danielle who sat across the classroom. We’d make eye contact and then it was all over – we’d dissolve into muffled laughter, shaking and snorting and unsuccessfully trying to contain our giggles, as our teacher looked sharply at us and shook her head.

As an adult, I still have an uncomfortable relationship with silence. At bedtime, the white noise machine is turned up full blast. If I’m home alone, music and podcasts are my nearly constant companions. On solitary drives in the car, it’s NPR.

I do enjoy all of these sounds. But even more, I dislike the absence of them.

What fuels my aversion to quiet? I know that my carefully constructed background noise is adaptive. It’s the way I’ve chosen to block out some of the unproductive worries that would otherwise run rampant through my brain like a stranger screaming obscenities in the middle of a quiet neighborhood. There are the everyday worries – did the kids get a good enough breakfast before school? Will they be warm enough for outdoor recess? Then there are the more troubling questions, the ones I want to bury so deep that they’re forgotten. They revolve around the health, safety, and general well-being of my family and others I love. They are the pesky what-ifs that never seem to go away, because ultimately, I don’t have an answer for them. All I can do is drown them out temporarily.

I’ll be the first to admit that I operate in the overly anxious tail of the bell curve, but I know my feelings aren’t unique. Some studies have suggested that we grew up in a culture of background noise that nurtured our modern fear of silence. For many of us, silence is associated with death and loneliness, so it makes perfect sense that we prefer to avoid it.

If we really wanted to, we could probably find ways to avoid silence as long as we wanted, thanks to our modern technology and 24/7 access to music, videos, and other entertainment. But it’s been suggested to me that a better coping strategy would be to resist that tendency – to let go of that background noise, even if just for a few moments. And yes, to embrace the quiet and allow those annoying what-ifs to surface and dance around my brain with carefree abandon, even if such a scenario temporarily heightens my anxiety. Simply acknowledging, without judgment, the fears that lurk beneath the din of distraction might ultimately be what takes away their power, creating space for true stillness.

I’m not about to ditch my white noise machine or swear off podcasts forever, but I do think there are baby steps worth taking. Driving in the car without the radio on, for example, sounds like a good experiment to try. And who knows? Maybe a few moments of quiet will be easier and more enjoyable than I think.

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