Turn That Blasted Thing Down!

Imagine this scene. A group of people are in a dim, sound-proofed room. They sit in rows of chairs that are bolted to the floor. A few of them whisper to each other. They are waiting.

Suddenly, a bright light stabs through the room from behind them. The front of the room explodes into a riot of flashing images. At the same time, shattering noise bursts from both sides of the room. The people cringe in their seats. Some of them cover their ears with their hands. But the noise continues, shrieking from the loudspeakers, rising and falling, beating against their senses in wave after agonizing wave.

This assault happens to hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans, over and over, week in and week out. It doesn’t take place in a prison or an interrogation room. That sound-proofed room isn’t a torture chamber.

Nope. These people are just spending another evening at the movies. The sound level of the film itself isn’t usually so bad. But the advertisements and previews blast out at a volume that is literally, physically painful.

And it isn’t just the movies. It seems to me the world is steadily getting louder. For one thing, we are surrounded by machines that we depend on. All of them—from cars to computers to furnaces to refrigerators—make noise. They hum and beep and whirr and purr and growl and rumble.

Then there are the noises-by-choice that we surround ourselves with. Take background music in stores (please!). It’s been there for years, ever since some marketing genius got the idea that music had charms to soothe more money out of our wallets. But it doesn’t stay politely in the background any more. It doesn’t exactly shout, but its volume has gone up to a point where it can no longer be ignored.

Then there are waiting rooms. Sitting at the doctor’s office used to mean being left in peace to have a conversation or peruse back issues of Gastroenterology Today. No longer. Almost every waiting room, no matter how tiny, now has at least one TV set. It dominates the room, talking endlessly to itself, regardless of whether anyone waiting wants to have it on.

Restaurants are getting louder, too. A while ago I was traveling and had the misfortune to stop for lunch at a truck stop. The restaurant had TV sets in three corners, shouting the latest celebrity antics at each other above our heads. As if that weren’t enough, competing speakers in the ceiling were blaring golden oldies. All the noise didn’t seem to be a problem for the people in the next booth. They just shouted a little louder into their cell phones.

One of the things that bothers me about all this noise is the number of people who don’t seem to be bothered by it. We’re so used to this auditory battering that we don’t even realize we’re being abused. Little by little, we just keep turning up our own volume, until it seems as if the whole world is shouting.

Research has shown that noise increases our stress levels. Our bodies are programmed to associate loud noise with danger, so we respond to it with a burst of adrenaline, ready to fight or flee to protect ourselves. But when the noise is everywhere, we can’t flee. We have no place to go.

Maybe we can’t flee, but we can still fight. I am—in a quiet way, of course—turning into a noise vigilante. Those obnoxious TV sets in waiting rooms? I turn them off whenever I can. In restaurants, I ask the servers to turn the music down. Sometimes they roll their eyes, but they almost always turn it down. And I choose not to spend my money in places—like movie theaters—that assault me with noise. It may not sound like much. Still, if more of us did it, perhaps the volume would start to come down.

Another thing I do is choose to spend part of my days in silence. When I go for my daily walks, I don’t take an iPod or a CD player or a cell phone. Instead, I listen to the voices in my head. It’s a wonderful chance to hear myself think. I wonder about things, I ponder, I have conversations with myself. And, in the blessedness of silence, I have a chance to welcome new ideas. They often slip in quietly, speaking in shy whispers. When I surround myself with silence, I can hear them.

Shh. Just listen. Silence. Can you hear it?

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