SANTA CRUZ, CALIF. — I saw a highway billboard recently that summed up a prevailing attitude: "Silence is weird." The product for sale? Cellphones. The ad campaign's bias was understandable, but it prompted me to reflect on how pervasive unbidden noise has become in our society. Loudness trumps quiet wherever people live, work, study, play, and even sleep.
Sadly, we're so submerged in our turbulent sea of human-made sound that we rarely enjoy the healing, tranquil balm of silence. Instead of the relative peace enjoyed by our technology-deprived grandparents, we're assaulted nearly everywhere by the clamor of traffic, sirens, aircraft, leaf-blowers, construction tools, weed-whackers, jackhammers, and of course, cellular telephones.
The price we pay is measured not only in psychological stress, but physical damage. The League for the Hard of Hearing has compiled research correlating loud sounds with measurable negative impacts on digestion, sleep, blood pressure, mental health, and fetal development. Experts believe that exposure to noise is one of the leading causes of hearing loss among Americans. Studies also implicate the harmful effect of loud sounds on children's learning and behavior.
"Calling noise a 'nuisance' is like calling smog an 'inconvenience,' " sums up former US Surgeon General William Stewart.
As an antidote, the league's Noise Center coordinates International Noise Awareness Day. The annual event pulls together antinoise activists who want stricter volume controls for public places, crackdowns on noise polluters, quieter entertainment venues, and greater public appreciation of silence. Among other suggestions, the group recommends laying off the car horn (except in emergencies), eschewing TV at dinner time, and asking health clubs and movie theaters to lower the volume a notch.
Increasing public awareness is a primary goal for this movement, much as it was for clean-air proponents a generation ago. In some communities next Wednesday, April 20, antinoise activists will be on busy streets to pass out leaflets calling attention to noise. They argue that while some annoying sounds are inescapable, a combination of technological fine-tuning and respect for others can reduce their impact dramatically. Fire engines, for example, can now use sirens and horns that broadcast in specific directions, eliminating discord behind and above as they travel.
Some uncontrolled noise inevitably greets us whenever we exit our front doors, but we often seem compelled to introduce it voluntarily to our inner sanctums: flicking on TVs, computers, or stereos; listening to answering machines; encouraging kids to play videogames; and installing noisy gadgets in every room. We can't hear ourselves think, or even feel - static obliterates the inner voices of our psyches.
The Noise Center proposes that we observe a silent minute, wherever we are, from 2:15 to 2:16 p.m. local time next Wednesday. The notion is radical in its simplicity. More quiet time would help us, but this is a start.
A more radical suggestion comes from Brett Banfe, who proposes a 24-hour stretch of silence once each year. He gained worldwide attention by becoming voluntarily mute from Sept. 1, 2000, through Aug. 31, 2001, setting an example that underscored the value of attentive listening, observation of details, and peacefulness. This from a 19-year-old New Jersey college student who had no interest in becoming a monk or dropping out of society. Instead, he used computers and other devices to communicate, along with body language and throat sounds.
Most of us aren't inclined to be silent for a single day, let alone a year. But I, for one, will embrace the "quiet minute" on April 20. I'll turn off my TV, radio, stereo, telephone, computer, and other noisemakers, then ask for the same courtesy from those who prefer to blast, blare, and beep. I'll patronize public quiet spots: my local park, library, museum, and beach. Finally, during a tranquil evening at home, I'll write a polite letter to my city manager, urging stricter enforcement of noise-abatement laws. Maybe she can do something about those garbage trucks that wreak havoc at 5:30 a.m., or go after the insensitive people who let car alarms screech without cause.
The ability to mold a healthful environment remains within our grasp. While the world fills with loud distractions, often unbidden, we keep craving the oasis of serenity that shrinks with their arrival. Please join me in a brief celebration of the simple pleasure of silence.
What's so weird about that?
• Richard Mahler, author of 'Stillness: Daily Gifts of Solitude,' teaches courses in stress reduction.