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A Precious, Healing Balm

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

It’s not on Amazon.com.  None of the brick and mortar stores have it.  You won’t find it in a catalogue.  It’s not available at a bank or hospital.  This elixir is so rare and valuable you couldn’t even talk your doctor into giving you a prescription for it.  That’s just as well because no pharmacist would know how to fill it.  This vanishing and precious healing balm is silence.

We are addicted to noise.  It’s nearly impossible to escape.  Incessant noise bombards us in the workplace, the grocery store, the drug store, airports, waiting rooms, and neighborhoods.  People bring their own noise with them everywhere they go — just in case there might not be enough ambient noise.  People can’t even go for a walk without portable noise.  Years ago, Max Picard wrote, “Nothing has changed the nature of man so much as the loss of silence.”

He was right.  Silence gives rise to the very rhythm and harmony of life.  Without silence, there is no calm, comforting stability.  Chaos is, by its very nature, noisy.  Consider the floor of any stock exchange.  Everything is noisy and chaotic, and yet markets crave stability.  Most people crave stability whether they recognize it or not.  Perhaps we use noise to avoid facing the deepest truths about ourselves.

Many of us are familiar with Henry David Thoreau’s quote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.”  The American writer James Thurber tweaked that sentiment in 1956, writing, “Most men lead lives of noisy desperation.”  Given our current culture, that’s probably more accurate.  Anyone who has lost electrical power for even 20 minutes knows that feeling of desperate frustration.  We want our gadgets to function.  We want our noise.

Oddly enough, when we’re sick or in pain, we usually want peace and quiet.  Could it be that silence is therapeutic?  That concept seems foreign to many people today, but it’s worth considering.  Silence is indeed a precious, healing balm.  It lies at both the center of the universe and the human heart.  Maybe, one day we’ll catch on.