As human beings in a modern society, we exist in a continuum of sound. Words and slogans, music and muzak, mechanical and industrial vibratings. When we talk we often do so against a background of sound. We have it piped into our supermarkets and shopping malls, our elevators, restaurants, cars, waiting rooms and living rooms. We allow portable radios and televisions to follow us everywhere. The word soundscapem has entered the language, while the word silencem has assumed an unnatural quality, vaguely negative, a symptom or product of loneliness. Noise has become the norm. Silence has become a condition to be avoided.
I thought about this as a friend described a recent riot at a county detention facility. The reported cause of the disturbance had been jail conditions, though the particular detail which had set it off had been the radio. Or rather the lack of it. The silence. No one had paid much attention to the radio when it was operative. When it fell silent there was chaos. The prisoners generated their own noise -- slamming and banging everything that wasn't fastened down -- until the sound was restored.
As a prisoner myself, the incident was not hard to understand. When I arrived at this institution, almost four years ago, silence was the most threatening aspect of my new life. Nights were the worst time. Except for the occasional footstep of a passing guard, the intermittent drip of a leaking shower, silence reigned absolute over the sleeping prison.
I found this silence terrifying. It seemed to magnify my sense of loneliness , my despair, my isolation. The silence was like a blank strip of celluloid on which I projected all of my fears and anxieties, my past failures. In the solitary darkness, these images loomed over me, animated and immediate, tracking me relentlessly into sleep. In my confusion, the silence began to seem a metaphor for my incarceration; a secondary, but no less formidable enclosure. Because I had no means of fighting it -- I didn't even have a radio then -- a gradual confrontation took place, an hour or two each night, in the tedious hours between "lights out" and the first rays of dawnlight.
In these nightly skirmishes, my relationship with the silence began to change. Slowly, but not imperceptibly, I began to view the silence as another place,m not a hostile one -- as I'd anticipated -- but a territory with its own customs, its own geography. As I walked through the Kingdom of Silence, I found it to be a place rich in paradox. This silence was anything but silent! Here, a chorus of voices awaited permission to speak. When I granted that permission, I recognized the voices as those of my spirit, the sound of my deepest feelings, drowned out before under the other noise of my life. I had been afraid to listen.
When I put that fear aside -- and that was the hardest part -- I was able to explore Silence with a sense of excitement, a sense of discovery. In acknowledging the sounds that colored this place, I was compelled to take inventory of the qualities which composed mem . In the Silence I was introduced to the person I'd been running from for so long, that I'd sought so desperately to avoid. I learned, ultimately, that I had misjudged this person, that I'd been wrong about him. As I became attuned to his language, to the nuances of my own spirit, I learned that I was a person I liked, that I was capable of enjoying my own company. After that, the external world -- even the bleak world of prison -- seemed infinitely more beautiful. The silence had become exquisite.
Silence is a place to which I return regularly. These pilgrimages are often undertaken when I feel most discouraged, the most in doubt of my own humanity. It is a healing place, a place for learning, for the rejuvenation of the spirit. It is a place that will take me to other places: a bridge to the universe of the imagination.
It is, most importantly, a place where I'm able to sort out everything that is me from everything that is not me.