Linda Downing

Let’s pause for a moment of silence

“Silence is not the absence of something, but the presence of everything,” says Gordon Hempton, founder of One Square Inch of Silence, an independent research project in the Hoh Rain Forest of Olympic National Park. Its website makes this point: “Silence is a part of our human nature, which can no longer be heard by most people.” We are deaf to silence.

Hearing silence can be scary. No one placed in an anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories in Minnesota, “Earth’s quietest place,” has lasted more than 45 minutes. Here scientists test products for loudness, NASA astronauts practice adaptation to space, and ordinary people become too disoriented to stand. If hearing nothing frightens, hearing familiar sounds amplified in the hush becomes an Edgar Allen Poe nightmare: lungs wheezing, hearts beating, stomachs gurgling.

A $1.74 billion mission of the European Space Agency held its breath for 31 months of silence within its 10-year, 4 billion mile comet chase by its unmanned Rosetta spacecraft. The quiet did not mean failure or non-activity; it meant the vessel was outside of hearing. As planned, Rosetta caught up with the comet and hopes to soon land a space probe on its icy back.

Twitter just let us know that governments increasingly want user data, supposedly not having to do with criminal investigations or national security. The company received 2,058 requests from 54 countries the first six months of 2014. Our own National Security Agency’s online spying is sparking the creation of new software to protect the 140-character tweets. Individuals from countries like Germany, taking particular offense to our prying, are hot markets for savvy privacy protectors like the well-named “Silent Circle.”

Apparently, the written stuff some think is inherently private, or silent, is easily noised abroad by well-paid hackers. It is getting harder to hide anything, even within silent circles.

Instead of vacations, some are opting for silent retreats. In an August Associated Press article Karen Schwartz wrote: “Silent meditation transcends most religious traditions and can be traced back thousands of years.” Perhaps she is right. Keeping our collective mouths shut for a while—by common consent, of course—might be the only way to reach commonality. Cease-fires could be putting the cart before the horse; we should first try “cease-mouths.”

In the silent retreats, people seek release from stress. Much like the experiences of those placed in the anechoic chamber, however, some fall apart. Meltdowns, no matter how painful, are designed to lead to letting go of control and learning to move at one’s own pace.

An old Hebrew proverb says that silence is “the fence around wisdom.” On January 1, 404 AD, a monk named Telemachus protested the gladiator ring by walking into it. His being stabbed to death by a gladiator changed hearts and ended the “games.” In the version of the story told by Ronald Reagan in 1984, “the entire crowd left in silence.”

In Revelation 8:1, the end of life as we know it has a strange prelude: “There was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.” If, as quoted earlier, silence is not an absence but a presence, we will learn that the Presence is God, the ultimate silent retreat.

Finding truth requires the right starting point. That is the quest of this column. If we seek simple truth, we can find it together—side-by-side.

Linda M. Downing is a freelance writer. Contact her at