Hear the Silence

by Tom Swift

Scientists have known for decades that noise — even at the seemingly innocuous volume of car traffic — is bad for us. ‘Calling noise a nuisance is like calling smog an inconvenience,’ former U.S. Surgeon General William Stewart said in 1978. In the years since, numerous studies have only underscored his assertion that noise ‘must be considered a hazard to the health of people everywhere.’ Say you’re trying to fall asleep. You may think you’ve tuned out the grumble of trucks downshifting outside, but your body has not: Your adrenal glands are pumping stress hormones, your blood pressure and heart rate are rising, your digestion is slowing down. Your brain continues to process sounds while you snooze, and your blood pressure spikes in response to clatter as low as 33 decibels — slightly louder than a purring cat.

Days after reading it, I keep thinking about the article from which this quote comes: “Why Everything Is Getting Louder” by Bianca Bosker in the November 2019 issue of The Atlantic.


First, it’s just a well-written piece. Bosker organized the material particularly well — weaving a human-interest story about a bedroom community in Arizona that is home to a large and ever-expanding data center that makes the sort of sound that not everyone hears but that grates on those who do — around facts, history, and other frames of perspective, creating a highly coherent narrative about a universal topic. I am grateful for the information she conveys and the sensory experience the article provides.

Second, and I am not sure there is a higher compliment to offer a writer, the piece changes how I perceive the world, a little.

To clarify, beyond endorsing the piece, I have no larger argument to make in this post. Yet I do want to reflect more on that second point — to tease out and, hopefully, solidify the alterations in my perception.

Noise. The soundtrack of our lives: so obvious yet hardly considered. You just take the noise around you and go about your day. That is, unless or until that noise sends you to the breaking point. Until, for example, you move into an apartment and the renters upstairs have small children or large dogs. Bosker chronicles specific instances in which otherwise law-abiding citizens resorted to violent acts in their attempts to solve conflicts over noise with their neighbors. She tells, too, of the ways certain music is used in hostage scenarios as a way to break the hostage takers. Sound of an unpleasant variety being something that can make us lose our minds.

As I write these words in the early hours of the morning, I am newly aware of the sounds of my own life. My refrigerator whirs. The thermostat just clicked, signaling that that the furnace will soon fire up. A wall clock tick, tick, ticks. I can hear my own fingers tap, tap, tap out these words.

Sound is everywhere. What a stupid thing to say. Yet how often do I not realize the sounds that shape my mood, my thinking, even, as Bosker says, the functioning’s of my bodily organs?

It’s strange when I become aware there is no discernible noise. Though I like silence, while I need quiet to write, unconsciously, if you ask me to think of a silent room, the image that comes to mind — when I think in the abstract — is that of a boredom or a lack of aliveness. Especially if I am not alone. Two people in total quiet. It’s an Edward Hopper painting is what comes to mind.

Reflexively, sometimes I turn on videos even if I do not plan to watch them. Or I turn on music even if I do not plan to listen to it.

I have noticed that, on our walks, I will steer my dog away from two roads close to our place that incur the most traffic. These two thoroughfares are lined by sidewalks on both sides: it’s not a safety issue. It’s the sudden disruption of thought, of peace, or of the podcast I am listening to — really listening to — that, upon reflection, can sometimes feel like a violent act committed against me. Very possibly I am getting old.

Yet I do truly cringe — I do have a physical reaction — when certain cars — you know the ones — where it seems the driver made adjustments to the engine for the sole purpose of creating a louder noise as he — and it’s always a he — roars past. It’s as if he’s saying, “I have a small penis but look at my attempt to compensate.” OK, maybe he’s not saying that, exactly, and I get that car repairs are expensive and if you don’t have a lot of money — these aren’t the Prius drivers, to be sure — you aren’t going to spend it on the unnecessary fixes. Still, it does seem akin to the infant with a noisemaker and a wide smile on his or her face. Look at me!

To clarify: No, you don’t have to get off my lawn.

As a highly sensitive person, I am perhaps more keen to certain forms of sensory stimulation. But I don’t think I am at all alone here. Bosker’s piece makes that obvious. I think, too, of a post on social media recently in which a loud truck driver complained that some of his neighbors complained to him. They seemed not all to be doing this knee jerk; it was a more or less polite request. One person’s noise can disrupt a neighborhood.

Definitely, it’s not your location, city versus country, I mean, that determines the volume of your life. In many respects I feel I have a quieter home in the city than I did while living well beyond the outer ring of the Twin Cities suburbs.

The striking thing about the Bosker piece is that, as she points out, sound affects you even if it doesn’t bother you.

The furnace just finished warming us up. The fridge is sufficiently cool. The clock needs a new battery.

I am going to try to reframe my thinking on the relationship between sound and excitement.

Tap. Tap. Tap. My fingers form these sentences and, really, there is no reason to think this modicum of sound is boring. Right now, my fingers are taking silent instructions from my brain and creating some amount of order and stability — whether or not it’s an illusion, the effect is still the same — to my experience of being alive in this moment.

It’s a sound, in other words, that if not pleasing to my ears, is at least pleasing to the matter that exists between them.