It shouldn't take a volcano to make us discover the value of silence.
When more than 100,000 flights were grounded after Eyjafjallajokull's eruption, the runways of London's Heathrow Airport fell silent - almost. Heard over the calming sounds of nothing were ... birds. So novel was this that CBC's The Current featured people caught in contemplation over their discovery of actually being able to hear birdsong instead of what would otherwise have been the roar of the world's third-busiest airport.
That sparked an interview with Tony Leroux, an audiologist from the University of Montreal who helped Current listeners understand why removing just one noise from the soundscape, in this case, airplanes, could have a psychological effect.
"Each noise is a sound of danger, so the body is in constant reaction," said Prof. Leroux. "If you remove a sound, the body relaxes." Hmm, so that's why taking the annoying ping off my e-mail alerts felt better, and perhaps it's also why we shouldn't wait for ash clouds to reveal to us the value of silence.
Shopping around for quiet is getting more difficult. Take, for example, Toronto, where a final vestige of silence in Canada's noisiest city is nearing the scrap heap. The Economic Development Committee for Toronto City Council has recommended that all holiday shopping restrictions be ended, giving us 365 days a year of retail sounds. Just like what happened when planes were grounded, people will be affected by this adjustment to the soundtrack of life. We may think it's a voluntary thing how we select the constant noise that sets the rhythms of our lives. Not so - we live in a time when we must be passionately deliberate about how we choose our silence.
Why bother? Because for one, it's just good to hear birds, wind and nothing, it's rest-filled and should be sought out. Then there's the deeper effect of silence, one that is deliberately pursued: contemplation, a silence that facilitates change, that keep us from mindless repetition.
"A certain amount of silence is almost like food and bread and drink," writes contemplation expert Rev. Thomas Keating. "It's part of human life. It's a place in which one reflects on the day and sips through one's motivation and lays aside that which is harmful to others and to oneself, and, and above all, put it this way, silence is God's first language. So to know God, we need to learn how to be silent."
With so little interest in God these days, silence has fallen on hard times. For some lifestyles, it can be outrageously costly, as those counting up the $2-billion lost from Iceland's ash will tell you. But it's imperative that we ask ourselves: What are we missing when our soundscape is constantly full?
I remember thinking I was having an aha moment when, as a young mother of noisy children, I discovered that the power of going to church was that it made me sit and be quiet for an hour. I believed it was just tiredness I was breathing out, but it was actually quite a bit more. It was and is the exchange of person that happens in the spiritual space of silence. In the Christian tradition, there are sacred rituals that help us participate in that mystery, they are acts of intentionality that guide us to renew our connection to the Christ covenant of promise that life will be brought to our psyche and beyond.
Or we could just twitter off some jokes, as so many have done, about the novelty of a cloud of ash over Europe and follow the clever distraction to fit an experience into 140 characters on a tiny screen. It is the days of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's famous poem: "Earth's crammed with heaven. And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes - The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries."
Lorna Dueck is the executive producer of Listen Up TV.