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Making Quiet

My urge to check my phone—that ever-present, flashing, buzzing weight in my pocket—has reached the level of addiction.

The reasons are admirable. I want to read the latest news about the world. All the time. When I’m having dinner with friends, in conversation with colleagues, when I wake up—the urge is there. It’s a worthy habit, but one worthy of breaking.

We are in a time of great stress and upheaval. Tsunamis, earthquakes, and other natural disasters are changing our lives and landscapes; explosive violence, wars, protests, and economic crises beat out a rhythm that’s difficult to ignore. In Egypt, the people ousted a leader who had been in power for thirty years. Re-ignited by this revolution, civil unrest in Libya has resulted in an uprising against Qaddafi, who has ruled since 1969. It’s not all bad news. Most of it is important news. There’s just so much of it.

The media seem increasingly interested in detailing us to death with meaningless minutiae and featuring the immediate, emotional reactions of pundits or the “man on the street” rather than considered, informed opinion or insight. Perhaps I am complicit. It’s easy to consume junk food for thought, even when we would prefer something rich, complex, and nourishing.

All this combines with pressing personal concerns, the rush of getting from place to place, and the buzz of digital notifications and interruptions to create a life lived hurriedly in a noisy world—one in which moments for reflection are scarce, we are hungry to learn all the details but reticent to step back and consider what they mean, and many are talking but few are listening.

It is in this world that I feel the need to make quiet in my life. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I traveled to a part of California with no cell or internet coverage. For days, I hiked in hills uninterrupted. I read great books—Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcón and A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit—and thought about the meaning of my work, of our work together. I saw a California Condor soaring overhead and thought about the fact that, in 1987, there were just 22 in existence and today there are close to four hundred. I had time to read about what drove those birds to the brink of extinction and wonder about the human impulse to bring them back.

We are learning that “fast” is not necessarily best for our food, the environment, international relations, our personal finances, our bodies, our minds. As I drove home, more slowly than usual, ready to return to my everyday life, I thought about how slowing down seems paradoxically to create more time and less noise.

Many of our greatest creations and achievements as human beings come from making quiet. Think of the years, possibly decades of quiet hours that James Madison spent in his library that informed and, in essence, formed the US Constitution. Think of John Muir’s quiet, solitary exploration of the Yosemite Valley that became so central to the creation and preservation of our cherished national parks. Think of Emily Dickinson’s deeply affecting poems; those words, illuminating the greatest truths of human experience and emotion like bolts of lightning, were composed by a woman who led a remarkably quiet and reflective life.

As author Anne Lamott recently wrote, “no one needs to watch the news every night, unless one is married to the anchor.” There is “nothing you can buy, achieve, own, or rent that can fill up that hunger inside for a sense of fulfillment and wonder.” Most of us are really searching for “enlivenment, peace, meaning, and the incalculable wealth of time spent quietly in beauty.”

This is not frivolous. Ideas are born in quiet hours, and ideas can change the world.

In these noisy times, let us not divorce ourselves from the world, but let us slow down and make quiet in order to live richer lives, to become more engaged and less distracted. Let us swim the depths of incredible books. Let us hone our abilities to see and hear and prepare for dialogue, not the soapbox. Let us be intentional about the lives we would like to lead and think about how the lives we already lead can feed our senses of curiosity and wonder.

Making quiet means building a house where you and an idea can live together. Savor ideas and treat them with great consideration, as though they could become your life-long partners or the newfound friends who, quietly, challenge you most. They very well may.


Ralph Lewin
President and CEO
California Council for the Humanities

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