What’s scarier to you: noise or silence?
Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel written by Ray Bradbury in the 1950s about a society that is filled, not with silence, but with noise—ear buds in the ears or screens in front of the face. That was how everyone—or almost everyone—in the book lived. Little personal reflection, few deep relationships or discussions, certainly no books (which were burned). The goal was to feel good and to go along with the crowd. With noise, we don’t question, don’t read, don’t think.
C. S. Lewis wrote about noise and silence along similar lines in The Screwtape Letters. The demon Screwtape is writing letters to his nephew and pupil, Wormwood, as he trains him how to tempt human beings. Screwtape shares, from a demonic point of view, the dangers of silence. The demons prefer noise to surround the Christian and the unbeliever alike. Bombardments of sound on every side. Constant distractions. This prevents people from either coming to faith or continuing a relationship with God. Their goal is, as Screwtape puts it, to make “the whole universe a noise.”
Why would demons prefer noise? And what can this teach us about the spiritual value of silence?
The answer is that, within silence, we find ourselves. Now, this might sound very New Age, like a self-help slogan at best. I do not mean practicing silence as a kind of psychological fiction where we turn inward to find validation or meaning. What I mean by finding ourselves in silence is that stillness forces us to face ourselves. It creates the opportunity to engage in critical self-examination and introspection.
Silence has been a normal, regular part of human existence until recent times where this has changed mostly in highly developed countries. For most of human history, there simply haven’t been enough noisy, flashy things available to constantly fill our time between social activities or during the mundane tasks of daily life.
But with the intrusion of television, radio, iPads, smartphones and an ever-expanding swarm of other devices, a constant buzz has filled the spaces which once held only silence. Now everything talks to us—from our cars to our refrigerators to our phones—and a screen is usually never more than a few feet away. Scratch that: it’s hardly ever even off our person!
Researchers have discovered that brains change from a lot of screen use—I mean literally, physically change. There is a buildup of grey matter in the front of a child’s brain when they are habitual users of television and other media, significantly lowering their attention spans as well as verbal abilities. The old saying “You are what you eat” has proven true of what we do with our time: You are how you spend your time. We’ve not only taught our brains to struggle with silence more than ever before, but we have also allowed our children’s brains to be taught the same thing.
Our society creates people who believe they are unable to sit in quiet, and who therefore do not practice wrestling with their own thoughts. In some ways, they really are unable. There are now entire generations of children who cannot follow a line of thought that is over a few sentences long. They do not read Scripture at all and couldn’t focus long enough to understand any of it if they did. They cannot focus long enough to learn simple biblical stories even. Summarize. Make it catchy. Don’t think. Grab a device. Zone out. Relax.
And what about our daily struggles? How do we manage them? We have them, of course, as all people always have, but we don’t practice wrestling with our thoughts in long periods of silence or on our knees before God. Instead, we distract ourselves until our struggles press so hard on us that we break. Mental illness is on the rise. According to the CDC, close to half of high school students have “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.” The American Academy of Pediatrics revealed that there have been “dramatic increases in Emergency Department visits for all mental health emergencies including suspected suicide attempts” since 2009, and suicide has become the second-leading cause of death for children and youth ages 10-24.
It’s no wonder we’re terrified of silence, even though we’re suffering so terribly for the lack of it. In silence, we inevitably come face-to-face with our own struggles and thoughts. You think about the sins you committed earlier—how you snapped at your children or how you weren’t there for a friend who seemed to need to talk more, or how you haven’t checked in with your elderly family member recently, or how you’re still angry at a member of your church for making that passing comment the other Sunday. Memories start coming back, both good and bad. Perhaps you start battling discontentment, lust, or envy.
What silence really does for us, then, is it brings us face-to-face with our frailty so that we can come face-to-face with our need for grace. We realize we aren’t perfect human beings, and we have a great amount of need in our lives. We need help. We need consolation. We need forgiveness. Weaknesses, failings, and struggles surface during periods of quiet just as wood from a shipwreck surfaces after a storm at sea. Our issues bob up—piece by piece—and we grapple with how messy our lives are and how much need we have for healing and help. We cannot bring these struggles to God if we’re busy distracting ourselves from them—and him.
I’m not saying that all problems are always solved by silence. That’s clearly untrue. But if you do not allow silence in your life, you lose out on a fundamental need human beings have to practice being human. We practice being human when we question things, wrestle with our problems, pray, or contemplate our mortality. Higher-level thinking is something that makes us unique as human beings. And even more importantly, when you do not engage in any of these mental exercises through silence, it makes coming to faith in God, or having a relationship with God, next to impossible. How can we pray if we don’t stop the distractions? How can we repent if we don’t reflect on our actions and sins or our need for a Savior?
I don’t think there is a quick or easy fix to this problem, but there are some practical steps we can take to foster healthy silence in our daily lives. It starts with recognizing the problem, and it progresses only within a purposeful structure. It starts at home: turning off the TV, putting down your devices, taking control of the screens which currently control you. As we do so, we are retraining our children’s brains and our own, one day at a time, to enter into the reality of the world immediately around us with focus and attention. From there, we must help ourselves and each other to focus on our need for God and a relationship with him borne out of this daily practice of silence.
Silence can feel like a great cross for us to bear, I think, as people so used to living in the continual noise of connection and distraction. But we were never promised an easy road as Christians. In fact, we are told many times our lives will be the opposite. “Whoever does not pick up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:38). And in our struggles with silence, we are pointed towards Jesus who was himself silent at his trial before his execution, bearing for us the fullness of the discomfort and shame that silence brings to us. This means we no longer have to fear the process of discovering ourselves in silence. We can instead embrace those moments as opportunities to recognize our need to take refuge in Christ, and to deepen our relationship with him.
Kyle Townes is a LCMS member and homeschool mom of five little girls. She is married to Richard Townes, a warrant officer in the US Army. She graduated summa cum laude from the Catholic University of America, and is a prior middle school teacher and current homeschool conference speaker. She has written articles for the National Right to Life, the Baptist Standard and Live Action News. She writes a blog that can be found at Kidsarecapable.net.
 https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article-abstract/120/3/532/71189/Does-Childhood-Television-Viewing-Lead-to?redirectedFrom=fulltext And for a slew of articles relating to attention and other health and behavioral concerns relating to media use in children, see here: https://www.aap.org/en/search/?k=attention%20span%20television&page=1 and https://www.aap.org/en/search/?k=media%20use%20children&page=1