Sonic Situations

I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet, strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers.

~ Khalil Gibran ~


Absolute silence—the complete absence of even a hint of the slightest noise—is but a fantasy; an artificial reality that exists only in our imagination. Even if a person was placed in a sound-proof box, insulated on all sides with three feet of acoustic insulation and buried ten feet underground, the vibrations produced by the blood coursing through his veins and the air flowing in and out of his lungs would interrupt the serenity of silence. We deceive ourselves into thinking we have experienced pure silence; that experience simply represents a reduction in sound level or a purposeful dismissal of attention to noise, not its absence.

Listen. That sound is both decay and rebirth; fierce silence and the timidity of deafening noise. The absence of sound, if that were possible, would signal the rejection of everything that matters. Consider that the noise emanates from atoms and molecules slamming into one another. Those chaotic encounters cause ripples in space, triggering yet more sounds that form a natural symphony. Even when we sleep—when we experience what we believe to be quiet—the sounds go on and on and on. If ever we were  able to experience the emptiness that accompanies the absence of sound, we would be bereft; the experience would be like having our hearts and brains ripped from our bodies, leaving behind only quivering masses of dying cells. Pure, unmitigated silence is available only to the dead; but even they are subject to minute vibrations of their environments—though, of course, the dead are not conscious of sounds at the molecular level. Yet even in the absence of operating receptors of sound waves, the waves continue to interrupt the serenity of space.

It occurs to me that even total deafness does not equate to pure silence. The sound waves remain in play. I suspect that the simple act of thinking must cause miniscule reverberations in brain tissue that could/should be classified as sound. The more I think about this matter, the more thoroughly convinced I become that absolute silence is an impossibility; at least in the universe in which we live. Yet I long to experience that impossibility, if only for a moment. But that wish is contrary to reality. Just like everything else that conflicts with authentic existence, even silence is a fantasy.

Despite the futility of seeking real silence, I value both the endeavor and the outcome. Much like the hunter who fails in his pursuit of prey, the quest itself is enormously rewarding. Simply thinking of silence may be as gratifying as experiencing it.


Today is Sunday. A few minutes before 7:00 a.m., I hear an airplane overhead. Noise that interrupts my quietude. But listening to the buzz of its engine makes me wonder what the pilot sees in the pre-dawn darkness. And why he or she is wandering the skies at this hour. I make up reasons the pilot wants or needs to be aloft. I imagine the purpose of the flight; delivering a freshly-harvested kidney to someone desperately in need of it. Or, perhaps, the plane was stolen by an inexperienced pilot who is now fleeing from law enforcement. I wonder why the cops are after her? Did she steal a piece of prized art from a Hot Springs gallery? Did he murder his wife’s paramour in a fit of rage and he is now running, hoping to escape his inevitable capture? Or is it more mundane…returning a wealthy family to Kansas City after a Saturday meeting with a financial advisor? If I could ask the pilot, I would. But I can’t. So I won’t. And I won’t let my inability to get to the bottom of it ruin my day. I just won’t.


I am in the mood for a thick, juicy steak. Or some superb sushi. Or a bowl of miso soup. But my mood will be ignored when it’s time for breakfast.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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