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A month ago, I would have been sorely underqualified to write about silence, the theme of this week’s issue. I grew up in downtown Chicago, where silence is an ever-allusive myth. Though I thought of Hanover, the rural New Hampshire town where Dartmouth is located, as a quieter lifestyle than Chicago, I’d interpreted that in the context of its simplicity, rather than the noise level. I should have known better, with Dartmouth’s the motto being “Vox Clamantis in Deserto.” Though “A Voice Crying in the Wilderness” describes some less outdoorsy freshmen on their First-Year Trips, a Dartmouth tradition where incoming students spend 5 days in the wilderness, it also portrays a certain degree of solitude; there is no background noise to life in the Upper Valley. In the pandemonium of Trips and the hecticness of orientation, I didn’t even notice the difference in noise levels between home and Hanover. As the storm has settled, and I’ve stared to adjust to my new home, silence creeps up on me at strange times. I’ve come to respect the profound impact of silence, especially on someone unaccustomed to it.
Chicago was filled with the noises of emphatic traffic, street performers and construction. Within my house, I was used to sounds of National Public Radio, my mom’s Italian opera and my brothers’ naturally boisterous voices. My own voice belting out Carrie Underwood’s best anthems filled the potential silence of drives to school. The library at my high school was inherently a social space, with librarians whose valiant efforts to quiet students only tempted them to talk more. If I needed to study, I put in headphones and blasted classical music, my sorry substitute for silence. Looking back, I remember moments of quiet, but never of real silence. I left the city for vacations or visits, but I never processed how comparatively loud life in the city was. As a disclaimer, I’ll admit these reflections aren’t complaints; these city noises were a symphonic melody, chaotic yet comfortable, part of what made it home.
Flash forward a month, and occasionally, while in the library, I am actually distracted by the silence. If I sit perfectly still, I can’t hear anyone or anything, as if the film of the Dartmouth bubble has absorbed the noise I associate with the outside world. This surprises me, because absolute silence isn’t something I was aware I’d been missing out on for 18 years. Dartmouth isn’t a monastery; it has its own unique sounds I’ve come to love, like the bell tower playing the “Alma Mater,” or better yet, “Every Time We Touch.” The difference is that in moments of down time, while the city might be quiet, Hanover is silent.
On the one hand, silence has a whimsical side. The cultural importance of meditation, the norm of silence in study spaces and the practice of a moment of silence to honor the dead, are testaments to this facet of silence. In my moments of silence at Dartmouth, I have found placidity in the stillness. The absence of the abundant energy of constant noise subtracts a degree of stress I didn’t know was present before Dartmouth. On the other hand, the popularity of the 2018 horror film “A Quiet Place” shows people find something inherently horrifying about silence. Even when silence isn’t horrifying, it’s at least uncomfortable for many people. Awkward silences are often associated with feelings of social anxiety, which raises the question of what is so inherently unnerving about it. For me, silence is when the hard parts of transitioning to freshman year set in. Moments of silence are when I’m confronted with missing my family and friends, or am overwhelmed by my workload. Maybe what makes silence so uncomfortable is the way it necessitates confrontation with oneself. It seems the result of the hyperactivity of every day at Dartmouth is the suppression of negative emotions by pure necessity. Most of the time, I have to be focused on the task at hand, but when I stop, the intense placidity of silent moments makes the emotions that come up in those times more intense.
For me, silence has even changed noise. I always assumed my slight Chicago accent and inability to maintain an inside voice were the result of genetics, or being raised in a big family. I was a loud person, and that was the end of that. Even five weeks into life in Hanover, I can recognize how my voice has changed. It’s still mine, but my vowel sounds are ever so slightly less harsh, and my speaking voice is marginally softer. I no longer have to constantly compensate for or compete with background noise. Bit by bit, life in the woods has allowed me to cautiously hang up my armor in the fight to be heard.
The intense power of silence has the science to back it up. According to the American Psychological Association, noise pollution can potentially lead to high blood pressure and heart attacks. Even in the 1800s, Florence Nightengale wrote that “Unnecessary noise is the most cruel absence of care that can be inflicted on sick or well.” More recently, a study published in the journal Brain, Structure, and Function, found that in mice, two hours of silence daily actually led to the development of new brain cells in the hippocampus. Essentially, not only is silence healthy for the way it makes us confront ourselves, it can literally rebuild our brains.
Silence is honest, healing and sometimes hard, especially when it’s new. I think most people, including me, are able to acknowledge that it’s a good thing. Still, I subconsciously avoid it, trying to fill it with unnecessary noise, because silence can also be intimidating. There are certainly times when I am unnerved by the absence of the background noise I’ve considered a given for most of my life and miss the city. With time, I hope to learn to fully appreciate the silence and the various benefits to one’s physical and mental health it provides. Dartmouth students are so often overworked and overstretched, and I think we need all the brain restoration we can get. Additionally, silence isn’t always possible outside the bubble, which is all the more reason to make space for it now.
Originally published at www.thedartmouth.com
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