Silence

Link post

This is part 26 of 30 in the Ham­mer­time Se­quence. Click here for the in­tro.

满罐子水不响,半罐子水响叮当
The full can is silent, but the half-empty can makes a loud noise.
~ Chi­nese proverb.

Take a bot­tle or soda can and fill it halfway with wa­ter. Shake the can – the wa­ter will slosh around loudly.

Now, fill the can to the brim and shake it again. It’s al­most com­pletely silent.

This is an es­say about in­ner silence – calming one’s loud­est in­ner voices to al­low quieter voices to speak. Usu­ally, the quieter ones have ur­gent mes­sages, es­pe­cially given how long they’ve been ne­glected.

This post is, in some sense, a fol­lowup to Bab­ble.

An Ocean of Voices

It is com­mon sense that the loud­est poli­ti­cian is rarely the wis­est. That the child who cries the loud­est is rarely the one suffers most. That the friend who crit­i­cizes most harshly rarely has the best ad­vice. If any­thing, the vol­ume of a voice nega­tively cor­re­lates with its value.

The Soli­taire Prin­ci­ple states that any failure mode of groups of peo­ple also ap­plies within the heart of each sin­gle hu­man be­ing. A dozen sub-per­son­al­ities fight over con­trol of your mind, each of their voices clamor­ing to drown out the oth­ers. Per­haps only one or two of them are con­sis­tently al­lowed to speak.

This pic­ture is fur­ther com­pli­cated by two fea­tures. First, voices are quiet for a rea­son. There are many things your brain is do­ing that it doesn’t want you to know about (see The Elephant in the Brain). Th­ese “meta-cog­ni­tive blindspots” may be huge is­sues in your life that you some­how never get to think­ing about. Every time you start, you feel un­ex­pect­edly sleepy or pre­oc­cu­pied. Your brain sends an army of louder voices to crowd out the tiny note of con­fu­sion whisper­ing: Look at the elephant! Ac­knowl­edge the elephant!

Se­cond, ex­ter­nal voices are also com­pet­ing for air­time in your head, and may eas­ily drown out even your strongest in­ner voice, e.g. the phe­nomenon “the mu­sic is so loud I can’t hear my­self think.” All sorts of read­ing, listen­ing, and watch­ing are pro­cesses by which we sup­plant our in­ter­nal voices with ex­ter­nal ones.

This post is about how at­trac­tive and dan­ger­ous it is to al­low ex­ter­nal voices drown in­ter­nal ones out, once and for all.

The Bur­den of Consciousness

There are a hand­ful of ac­tivi­ties that rou­tinely swal­low my time like bot­tom­less holes. Play­ing video games. Watch­ing anime. Read­ing fic­tion. Click­ing through Red­dit. I feel the urge to throw my­self into them pe­ri­od­i­cally.

For a long time, I thought these ac­tions were mainly ex­pe­ri­en­tial pica: my brain try­ing to satisfy my needs for signs of progress, self-im­prove­ment, drama, and nar­ra­tive en­ergy. But the other day, I tried tak­ing a nap in­stead of watch­ing anime, and it satis­fied the same urge. That’s when I re­al­ized what I was re­ally look­ing for: the fast-for­ward but­ton.

Liv­ing con­sciously and in­ten­tion­ally was too effort­ful, fac­ing my prob­lems head-on too painful, and what I wanted more than any­thing was to shut down my own thoughts and fast-for­ward through life. Read a thou­sand-page novel, watch a six-sea­son TV show, scroll through a hun­dred life sto­ries on AskRed­dit. Th­ese were all ways to forfeit my agency and be­come a medium for some­one else’s nar­ra­tive force.

In sum, the ex­ec­u­tive thread in my brain did ev­ery­thing in its power to shut it­self off.

The Will to Nothingness

The book which for me most poignantly de­scribes the bur­den of con­scious­ness is Mar­ilynne Robin­son’s House­keep­ing (a novel that I al­most don’t recom­mend). It’s a de­press­ing story in which ev­ery char­ac­ter is on the brink of suicide, philo­soph­i­cally and liter­ally.

Here’s a mo­ment when the pro­tag­o­nist’s sister Lu­cille is ac­cused of cheat­ing (em­pha­sis mine):

Lu­cille was much too in­differ­ent to school ever to be guilty of cheat­ing, and it was only an evil fate that had prompted her to write Si­mon Bo­li­var, and the girl in front of her to write Si­mon Bo­li­var, when the an­swer was ob­vi­ously Gen­eral Santa Anna. This was the only er­ror ei­ther of them made, and so their pa­pers were iden­ti­cal. Lu­cille was as­ton­ished to find that the teacher was so eas­ily con­vinced of her guilt, so im­mov­ably per­suaded of it, call­ing her up in front of the class and de­mand­ing that she ac­count for the iden­ti­cal pa­pers. Lu­cille writhed un­der this vi­o­la­tion of her anonymity. At the mere thought of school, her ears turned red.

This mo­ment clar­ified for me an in­sight about ex­actly the kind of noth­ing­ness the girls in House­keep­ing were af­ter. In this kind of noth­ing­ness, ap­a­thy, con­for­mity, and anonymity are cen­tral, while ac­tual suicide is a mere af­terthought.

Fol­low­ing Niet­zsche (whom I will pre­sum­ably never un­der­stand), we call this urge the will to noth­ing­ness. It prays:

Let me not be heard.

Let me not be seen.

Take away my agency.

Drown out my voice.

Fast-for­ward me through the years.

Let me be one in­dis­t­in­guish­able face in a crowd.

Let not the sun­rise bring me joy.

Nor sun­set sor­row.

Where does the will to nonex­is­tence come from? Part of it is an in­se­cu­rity that what you have to say is in­suffi­cient, that who you are is too bro­ken to con­tribute. Part of it is bit­ter­ness that the world doesn’t de­serve to hear your voice and see your face. That these two con­tra­dic­tory ideas co­ex­ist in a sin­gle heart should only sur­prise you if you’ve never met a hu­man be­ing.

The Cure to Nihilism is Silence?!

I will not pre­tend to know how to solve the prob­lem in gen­eral, but this is what worked for me. An in­sight­ful friend of mine asked me one ques­tion which shook me out of the will to noth­ing­ness:

“What if ev­ery time you wanted to play video games you just in­tro­spected in­stead?”

It had never oc­curred to me, de­spite the fact that I love to write, de­spite the hours I day­dream and doo­dle at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity, that I could make room for these in­ner voices by silenc­ing the world com­pletely.

For weeks af­ter that day, I took many long walks, mut­ter­ing gib­ber­ish un­der my breath. I lay in bed and day­dreamed. I wrote for hours with­out stop. In that time I learned that my will to noth­ing­ness was un­jus­tified. I learned that my in­ner voices would never stop hav­ing things to say. Later, I also learned that the world de­serves ev­ery­thing I can give it, and more.

Look through your life. What do you do to shut off the bur­den of con­scious­ness? Do you reach for your phone at bor­ing so­cial en­gage­ments? Do you drink or smoke? Do you throw your­self into sto­ries that have lit­tle artis­tic merit just to pass the time?

What would hap­pen if ev­ery time you wanted to do that, you in­tro­spected in­stead?

No nominations.
No reviews.