Background Noise

Remember the days when television stations actually ended their broadcast day? They signed on in the morning and ended at a designated time. The national anthem may even have played somewhere in the mix. Until the next day, there was nothing to watch but colors, patterns, or numbers. At our house, it was a feat worth noting if we kids managed to escape bedtime until the color bars appeared, signaling the station was off air. That didn’t happen often!

We may not have recognized it, but that off-air time was a helpful break. It gave our ears a break and our minds a chance to relax and wander as we were spared a few hours from the constant bombardment of .  .  .  what shall we call it? News? Entertainment? Misinformation? Whatever it is, we benefited from the downtime. Probably there is still a small station somewhere that continues that practice of signing off, but these days most channels deliver programming 24/7. Night owls and insomniacs need not worry about having no entertainment or background noise to keep them company. Ours is a world saturated with stimuli.

We humans unwittingly contribute to that pattern. First, by being willing consumers of the noise. Second, by adding to it ourselves. We love to talk. And talk. About almost anything. I have noticed a predictable pattern is followed when I travel with groups. People introduce themselves to one another as they gather initially. And why wouldn’t they? We may be adventurous but we’d like to know a little something about our travel mates and build some sense of connection. You never know when a serial killer or a celebrity might slip into the group, so better to sort those things out early. We start conversations. We reveal snippets of ourselves as a way of testing the waters and determining if we fit in and whether we might be accepted.

On a recent trip, I nearly decided one person in the group had worked or was working for an intelligence agency because of the questions he asked everyone in the group. I could imagine him starting files on each of us, tracking our activities and taking notes during our days together. Turns out he was just an outgoing, engaging ex-school teacher (or so he said!) who was truly an enjoyable companion– once we got to know him. Those various personalities look for common interests. It isn’t long before comments are being exchanged like bids at an auction house and you must be quick to get a word in edgewise.

I have come to categorize these as “travel friendships.” They are fun and enjoyable for the duration of the trip. When the time for goodbye comes, we act as though we will see each other again. But the grim reality is that it rarely happens. I once questioned the value of investing time in these friendships if they weren’t going to last but finally realized that didn’t really matter. Enjoying the new experiences we encountered together as members of this small group is the point.

Those experiences are one source of my observation that people are bit like the 24/7 television cycle. Well, some of us are. We go on and on and on. About anything and everything. And sometimes nothing. It starts with how the flight to our shared destination was. Was the flight on time? Was the ride smooth? Was the food edible? It moves on from there, perhaps to something like one’s favorite travel experiences. Before you know it, you are hearing about someone named Aunt Millie’s gall stones and wondering how her recovery is going even though you have never met her.

After a bit of socializing, I’m likely to fade into silence like the introvert that I am. I listen. A lot. And I’ll strike up conversations when I have something to say. But I rarely talk just to be talking or create background noise. I’m certainly no match for most of my travel companions. Lord have mercy, the majority of them can talk. At least once in every trip, the constant buzz of conversation gets my attention. I’ll say to Judi, “Listen.” After a few seconds, I invariably ask her, “What do these people have to talk about? What could be that important? Or that interesting, that the chatter goes on for hours every day?”

Time of day does not matter. It starts in the elevator on the way down to the dining room. It goes through breakfast, which is generally quiet at our house. It continues on whatever mode of transportation we take for a morning outing. I remember once when we had a 3 a.m. departure for an internal flight, as the bus made its way to the airport, there was this blessed moment when I realized the vehicle was absolutely quiet other than the sound of the engine. Finally, I thought! Quiet. Maybe unreasonable departure times are the secret to quieten the group? Sadly, that hypothesis proved not to be true. On the next 3 a.m. departure, the conversation was abuzz without apology as we pulled away from the curb outside of our hotel and headed toward our destination. I do not know how to account for the difference.

This isn’t a criticism of those who talk as much as it is a recognition of how I am at odds with what seems to be a common and near-universal practice. I consider myself a good conversationalist, which, more and more seems to be a lost art these days. Even so, just today, as we traveled down the road in what I thought was sweet silence, Judi said to me, “Talk to me about something.” She may as well have asked me to dance the Watusi as to ask me to talk just for the sake of talking. “About what?” I asked. “Anything,” she responded. In that moment of searching for a topic, it is like standing in front of a bookcase with 1000 titles and feeling like there is nothing to read.

This week I received a door hanger in a solicitation letter. It read. “Quiet Please. I’m recharging my inner light.” I could relate to that. It reminded me of a postcard I kept taped to the wall in my carrel in graduate school that read, “I am a Quaker. In case of emergency, please be quiet!” I’m fairly certain Quakers didn’t cause this tendency in me; they merely reinforced and legitimized it.

As I ponder these things, it seems wise to think more about the value of words than those occasions when are they are a nuisance. For starters, communication is necessary if we are going to live and interact with other people. How else will we express who we are and what we need, or understand what others want us to know? Not all communication has to be verbal but try negotiating in a group where you don’t understand their language and you will quickly become aware of how words ease the process of making oneself known.

Words are, I believe, generally good. Granted they can be used in hurtful and harmful ways, causing pain, and starting wars. But the flip side is they can convey love and compassion. They can affirm and encourage. They can assist the building of partnerships and the accomplishment of the unthinkable. And, I suppose we can add that they are entertaining and at times serve to fill in unbearable gaps where silence threatens to cover the group like a winter snowfall.

Might I suggest that when it comes to talking, abstinence is not the goal? Rather moderation is in order. I am reminded of what would be lost if there were no rests in a musical score. Or no colons, semi-colons, or commas in writing to slow the pace and influence emphasis. In the breaks between the sounds, we often better appreciate the sounds themselves, or discover important things going on beneath their surface.

When my father died many years ago, after the funeral I had to preach on the Sunday following our return to Indiana. It had been a difficult several days coping with that surprising loss. In worship on that Sunday, I was holding it together well, focusing on my responsibilities in the service. It was going, and actually went, very well. But I recall the moment when this small Quaker meeting settled into quiet for a period of open worship. As the activity slowed, with no music or direction from a speaker, I sat with this group in silence. I sank into nothingness and waited, as one hopes do in moments like that. What met me there, welling up within was sadness and grief as my loss broke back into my consciousness. So long as I was talking, focused, and engaged, the hurt was held at bay. Thinking of it now reminds me of the words I heard recently in a TV program when a priest explained his own penchant for talking incessantly. He said, “I talk so that I won’t know what the silence holds.”

Maybe, just maybe, that is why we prefer to talk so much. It is preferable to facing what greets us in the quiet. My sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Moore, chided us regularly that, “Idle minds are the devil’s workshop.” I didn’t believe her then, and I don’t now. If anything, I think occasional idleness is good for the soul if it allows us to pay attention to sounds of silence. Perhaps then the words and conversations around us can become more than just background noise.

Have any Question or Comment?

3 comments on “Background Noise


Nice chat, Jay. Thanks!

I’m a Foo fighters fan and the lead singer lost his mom and they released this, their longest song ever, your post reminds me of how the song ends. Definitely a lot of static, definitely a need also for silence in the world:

Jay Marshall

Hi April, I don’t know Foo Fighters music but will look that up. I do, however, remember you well and am happy up hear from you. Hope you’re well!

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