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Freedom from the tyranny of doing



Some years ago, I was asked to mind a house in inner Melbourne, so for weeks I rattled around in a boom-period mansion of 11 large rooms. Nervous at night, I took myself in hand: 'They've got to find me first,' I told myself when thinking of would-be intruders.

Patrick Leigh FermorThe other reason for nerves was the noise level: in the Greek village house I had been without a phone for ten years, and the most common sounds were those of donkeys sobbing in the olive groves and tractors grinding along the street.

In the Melbourne house there were numerous phones, so that I never knew which one to answer. There were also machines that I was ignorant of, but which emitted noise very regularly: the air conditioner, various exhaust fans, the enormous freezer, the fax machine, the intercom, the house alarm. The whole building gave out a constant hum, even in the days before the computer ping of email.

I realised then that I had spent a quiet childhood: in the country township we had no car, no refrigerator, little background noise apart from birdsong. When we listened to the wireless it was with a purpose, for a particular program. As for other noise, we made our own when the spirit moved us: piano, violin, our singing voices. In between we had our quiet interludes: sometimes my mother would demand what she called 'a drop of hush'.

The human brain has always needed silence, and there have always been people who needed solitude, at least for certain periods. In 1948 war hero and adventurer Patrick Leigh Fermor (pictured) retreated to a French monastery simply in order to write. But the experience of silence was an unexpected bonus.

At first he found it simply depressing, and was prey to terrible feelings of loneliness and flatness. But eventually freed from what he termed the 'automatic drains' of talk, movement and nervous expression, he found a unique and restorative freedom that enabled him to work and eventually produce A Time To Keep Silence.

Life was simpler then. Now, as well as other sources of noise, we have what British-American writer and self-confessed web freak Andrew Sullivan calls 'online clamour' to contend with. In 2016, fearing a breakdown as a result of what he terms living in the web, and apparently doing little else in the way of living, Sullivan booked himself into a retreat, which involved separation from his iPhone, and the subsequent withdrawal pangs.


"Faith, Sullivan maintains, needs stillness and silence in order to endure or be reborn. But today that stillness and silence is being constantly challenged by 'the white noise of secularism'."


But like Fermor decades before, Sullivan soon began to appreciate the experience. He contends that his obsession had been leading him to lose his humanity. Freeing himself from the web was hard work, but very much worth the effort: he began to draw closer to the natural world, and had no mediating iPhone to capture the images of light on leaves or the birds whose songs he was genuinely listening to at last. He, too, began to see the positive in the deepening silence that enveloped him during this restorative time, and felt freed from the tyranny of 'doing'.

Sullivan is a practising Catholic, and began to think rather more about the place of silence in our lives, which has been much harder to achieve since 'the roar and disruption of the Industrial Revolution'. He considered silence in spaces like libraries and churches, and the way in which Christ was often silent: he did not defend himself when he could have done, for example. Sullivan comes to a conclusion that I found surprising, but also logical: hedonism is not the enemy of faith, distraction is. In fact, he asserts, distraction is a threat to our souls.

Nor can we blame science and scientists' attempts to disprove the unprovable for the diminution of faith in our culture. Faith, he maintains, needs stillness and silence in order to endure or be reborn. But today that stillness and silence is being constantly challenged by 'the white noise of secularism'. I suppose the moral of Sullivan's story is that we all need to slow down and use all our senses, since the irony is that the urge to be continually connected actually disconnects us from 'real' life. Sometimes we need to stop and smell the roses. And switch off our phones.



Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, silence, secularism, faith, Catholicism



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Existing comments

Silence can be found in certain books and in certain places. Not merely lack of noise, but a deep silence which reigns. Certainly, libraries and churches are such places. And in wilderness areas I've visited, including in Greece. This morning I was visiting a nearby town where I discovered a new bookshop with many treasures. There was a biography of a writer I've longed to know more about: Joseph Conrad. His beautifully-written novel "Heart of Darkness" has a deep silence. I didn't buy the biography, however. The novel tells me what I need to know about him. I agree with you about Christ's silence.

Pam | 05 February 2018  

Thank you Gillian for a thought provoking article. I have found throughout my life silence to be a necessary nourisher for the soul, as well as fuel for creativity, and I don't find it any less so as I get older.

John Whitehead | 07 February 2018  

Fascinating article as usual, Gillian. I may well be the last person in the Western world to have no mobile phone and no social media connections. One can feel isolated at times, but it's also peaceful.

Juliet | 08 February 2018  

Gillian a superb article. I lived in a Greek village too, many years ago, and returning to Melbourne was a shock to the senses. Wonderful prose - thank you!

Sarah Cannon | 08 February 2018  

Thank you so much Gillian. Your article resonates with me. "Be Still and know that I AM". Peace and All Good, Michael Campbell

Michael Campbell | 09 February 2018  

Wonderful! You spoke to me of my childhood, so similar to your own, of the wonder that came with discovering the natural world as a child, of the human bonding in song around the piano, of the fun of an Irish jig brought to life on the fiddle and of radio favourites that I don't recall being as boring s today's media offerings. At Mass in those days, the silence and the beauty of the spoken and musical liturgy attested to a presence to be revered and indeed loved. Poor, poor fellas today's young, seduced by the emptiness of self indulgence, searching for purpose or meaning through technology while not seeing the beauty of creation that surrounds them in nature every day. And as far as Mass is concerned we have certainly removed from it anything that induces reverence or prayer. And we have replaced the healing silence of a monastic refuge with trendy rehab for a substantial fee. Sad, sad world !!

john frawley | 09 February 2018  

I've been reading some of the reflective and meditative prose and poetry of writer Peter Skrzynecki. He found his vision within his early rural one-teacher school appointments - especially first of all in Judith Wright territory east from Armidale towards Ebor in the Jeogla community. Lots of time gazing out over dams - through windows - observing - out of his loneliness away from his beloved parents finding his eye for the shift of seasons - far sharper on that high plateau's edge - than in western Sydney - and heard the bird calls, saw the movement of the clouds - the observer, he was, of the farming milieu. From his perceptions - not out of radio or lots of conversations - at least once his teaching day was at an end - came the words to write about how he felt. A kind of interior meditation. Aspects of Paddy Fermor and Andrew Sullivan - as you have pointed out

Jim KABLE | 09 February 2018  

Maybe we should free ourselves from "doing" for the sake of doing - like useless rituals and chants - but for those harking back with a sense of nostalgia, let's not forget that our greatest ritual - the Mass - is the culmination of what Jesus did! And then later he was tortured and killed for what he "did". So unless we contemplate the reality, all the chanting and healing rituals are in vain.

AURELIUS | 11 February 2018  

So true Gillian! Staying for a week or so alone at a little shack we have I was amazed by the lack of ‘white noise’. Realised it was the simple fact that devices were not constantly nagging me; the fridge (we bought brand new in 1983) doesn’t feel the need to ‘ding’ mercilessly if I happen to take more than a few seconds to make my selections (let alone leaves the door ajar - heaven forbid!), the microwave similarly doesn’t feel the need to remind me every few seconds that ‘it has finished and you still haven’t fetched your food’. And then there’s the washing machine (new in 1986) that is blissfully free of annoying pings and rings throughout its cycles. My one at home is particularly annoying because it insists on summoning me when it’s finished - repeatedly, until finally I relent. This I really don’t understand. The microwave summoning makes some sense (for your food is going cold), but why does it matter if the washing isn’t hung out straight away? Oh dear. And don’t get me started on the cars...a veritable cacophony of various chimes. One I like best is the incessant beeping when I have something on the front seat; apparently I have to strap it in (it thinks the realm of paper is a person?) and there is just no reasoning to be done. Obey the car or put up with the irritation on your 40 minute drive home! It’s quite exhausting and intrusive; and the stuff I’ve described has only arrived in the last 20 years. Our youngest daughter has, at 25, moved to a retreat to live and is a practising Buddhist. And vegan too. She’s rejected the materialistic world for a spiritual one and we are so very proud of her. It just makes so much sense!

Fiona | 12 February 2018  

In religion there is an interplay between sound and silence. Certain sounds, such as Gregorian chant, or those of the Old Latin Mass, especially in a church with the right acoustics, take you to a quiet place within yourself, from which you can later emerge, especially after Communion, healed and fulfilled. There is an overall purpose to religious tradition. Modern social media do not have this sort of purpose, often being '...full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing.' Religion and the more traditional rural life feed the senses properly. Modern social media don't. So much participation, no real involvement: an empty society. Even in monasteries and convents, supposedly quiet places, there is no escape from these intrusions and monks and nuns are increasingly desperate to find peace and quiet.

Edward Fido | 12 February 2018  

Happily there is a growing awareness about Mindfulness and I am hopeful young and old are feeling the value of it's practice. Your article is timely, Gillian and I thank you for it. The more we learn and read about silence and stillness the better to cope with the wild world of noise. Bring back the sounds of nature, and forest bathing. Let's do more listening and less talking. Let's enjoy the silence outside and within. A lovely article. Thank you.

Anne Kostaras | 14 February 2018  

As usual Gillian, a well thought out and thought provoking article. So many threads to be explored and as you say necessary but challenging in the modern world. Perhaps it is the reason for so many nervous illnesses and the popularity of mindfulness. The Simon and Garfunkel “Sounds of Silence” was recently re-released by a very aggressive sounding singer who made me think of the echo that sound leaves and how listening to it is a distraction which we must acknowledge before we can listen to ourselves. It may not be easy to experience silence but it does give us the oportunity to find and hold on to our humanity in this chattering world.

Maggie | 14 February 2018