- Chatter, Silence and Focus
Our lives are full of chatter, full of the noise of human voices, a constant chattering that not only comes from all around us, but that emanates from within our own heads. Radio and television provide a constant barrage of idle chatter, of small talk. Take talk back radio: It’s hardly ever a discussion we’re hearing - simply the sound of people who like the sound of their own voice. The airing of someone’s usually poorly articulated view.
We chatter to each other to fill the silence, prattling on about this or that, and it is, to quote the Bible – Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians – ‘ a clanging gong or a sounding cymbal … signifying nothing’. And therein lies the nub of the thing: the lack of significance.
In a wonderful line in his poem Australia, A D Hope writes:
The Chattering of apes that passes as civilization over there …
And let me be clear – I am as guilty of this ‘idle chatter’ as anyone.
There is a scene in the film “As Good As It Gets” when the Jack Nicholson character attempts to express what it is that attracts him to the Helen Hunt character. He is an anti-social misfit, a writer of romance novels whose only pleasure in life is to insult and upset other people, an isolated, alienated, desperately lonely, thoroughly unlikeable man. But he sees something in the Helen Hunt character that others don’t see: that she only says things that she means, that she only talks about things that really matter, that when she speaks, it is about things she cares about deeply; she is honest, she is not putting on a show, a front, a façade. She speaks from the heart.
There is distinction between ‘chatter’ and ‘conversation’. Conversation requires engagement: we engage with each other, we talk of things that matter. In one of his earlier songs, ‘The Dangling Conversation’, Paul Simons writes:
And we speak of things that matter
In words that must be said:
Can analysis be worthwhile?
Is the theatre really dead?
And we sit and drink our coffee
Couched in our indifference
Like shells upon the shore
We can hear the ocean roar.
Simon gives us a brief glimpse of a couple whose relationship is drained of all meaning and life. The talk of ‘things that matter’ is, in fact, superficial chatter; each is actually ‘couched in indifference’, they are ‘shells upon the shore’ – no longer living creatures but empty shells, capable of seeming to produce the sound of the life force – the sea – but in fact lacking in substance, in life. The heart has gone from their ‘dangling conversation’.
In his analysis of language, linguist M A K Halliday identified a wide range of functions – uses we put language to:
- To represent: to ‘name’ things
- To control others
- To express emotion
- To establish social contact
- To maintain social contact
- To include or exclude others from groups
- To inform or instruct
- To think ideas through
Interestingly, he also included ‘to fill time’, to fill the silence. Chatter is a way of breaking the silence.
I know of households where the TV is never off; it provides constant background noise – the chatter of voices and the sound of music. Many young people walk around with earplugs from their CDs, listening to their favourite music. They switch them off, though, when they are SMSing their friends. Of mobile phones, one 14 year old said, “I’d be lost without my phone. How could I talk to my friends.’
A young friend of mine set off on a journey around Australia recently. She and her friend took an I-pod with them - a little electronic gizmo that save you the problem of carrying large numbers of CDs. The I-pod carries literally hundreds of CDs on a silicon chip. The device is about the size of a cigarette box.
What is this need for the comfort of chatter? What is it about silence that makes us uncomfortable?
Throughout my adolescence and early adulthood, I craved company. I hated being alone – in part because I had grown up a lonely little boy with few friends. I recall a time when I was in my 20s. I was a teacher, as was my wife. We were living in Glenroy. If I arrived home from school and she was not there, I would become agitated and uncomfortable, and would go out and visit neighbours or friends. I hated being alone. It was as though I needed the reassurance and company of others to feel as though I existed. That’s the way I thought of it then: I lacked a strong sense of a self; I was defined by my social relations. I needed other people to tell me who I was.
I think I see it differently now. I think my ‘core self’ was always there, and it frightened me, because it was lonely, isolated, worthless. Give me the chatter of friends and acquaintances rather than the empty lonely shell that I feel when I am alone.
I think we chatter to fill the silence and to evade the truth. Chatter is a cover up, a time filler, a distraction from the deeper, significant things that trouble us. Silence frightens us – or at least some of us.
When Freud first developed psychoanalysis it was called ‘the talking cure’. These days there is a booming industry in talking cures of various kinds, psychotherapies of various persuasions. Our faith in the power of the spoken word to heal has a long long history. In the Catholic Church, people go to confession: “Forgive me Father for I have sinned”. They go through the ritual of confession, and they are given absolution; in the confession box, the sinner is cleansed, freed from the burden of sin. In Christian scriptures, Christ’s words can achieve miracles: the lame can walk again, even Lazarus can rise from the dead; it simply takes the words of Christ to achieve these things.
When couples are having trouble, they talk it over. They clear the air. The talk needed to ‘sort things out’ is, however, not chatter. It is the kind of deep conversation in which we say only the things that we mean, in which we only talk about things that really matter; when we speaks, it is about things we care about deeply; we are honest, we are not putting on a show, a front, a façade. We speak from the heart.
Not that that is always easy. And often, what we do have to say is painful both to ourself and to the other.
Silence is another possibility. When the spiritual seeker and writer, Thomas Merton, visited the giant statues of the Buddha at Polonnaruwa he saw them as standing for a way of life that “needs nothing” and can therefore “afford to be silent, unnoticed, undiscovered.” They have “seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything – without refutation – without establishing some other argument … For the doctrinaire, such silence can be frightening.”
Spiritual traditions - whether Christian, Buddhist, New Age, whatever – have established silence at the core of the spiritual experience. In prayer, in silent meditation, we are able to ‘get in touch’ with god, with the spiritual.
Of meditation, Stephanie Dowrick writes (The Age Good Weekend Magazine, July 31, 2004):
There is a wonderful story told about the Buddha, who was once asked, “What have you gained through meditation?”
“Nothing at all,” he answered.
“Then, Blessed One, what good is it?” he was asked.
To which he replied, “Let me tell you what I have lost in meditation: sickness, depression, anger, insecurity, the burden of old age and the fear of death. That is the good of meditation, which leads to Nirvana (freedom from selfish and useless desires).”
She goes on to quote the Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius:
Are you distracted by outward cares? Then allow yourself a space of quiet, wherein you can add to your knowledge of the Good and learn to curb your restlessness. Many of the anxieties that harass you are superfluous: being but creatures of your own fancy, you can rid yourself of them and expand into an ampler region, letting your thought sweep over the entire universe.”