It was in the 1860s that Henry David Thoreau, one of America’s great philosophers, wrote: “I have three chairs in my home; one for solitude, two for friendship and all three for society.”
Thoreau (1817-1862), writing about the simple life in the country, stressed the enjoyable times when one or two friends dropped in for a serious talk about weighty matters, and the more raucous times when his modest living quarters were jammed with neighbours for more boisterous and difficult-to-follow debate. He enjoyed them all but none so much as when “the solitude chair” sat empty and Thoreau had the luxury, and the wisdom, of being able to listen to its silence and learn.
It would be a hundred or so years after his death in 1862 that in the 1960s a couple of young folk singers would put a different spin on Thoreau’s praise for periods of solitude, where men and women could find the silence “companionable,” challenging and, if listened to, strengthening for society.
Paul Simon was 17 when he penned the lyrics of The Sounds of Silence, and with his partner, Art Garfunkel accused the world of living in a zone of silence and being too cowardly to respond to the ominous warnings it clearly conveyed. It was a timely call to conscience 50 years ago and is even more timely today.
Maybe you have forgotten some of the words: “Hello darkness, my old friend I’ve come to talk with you again/Because a vision softly creeping/Left its seeds when I was sleeping/And the vision that was planted in my brain/Still remains/Within the sound of silence.”
He sang of his restless dream as he walked the cobbled streets of any town and every town until his eyes “were stabbed by the flash of neon light that split the night and touched the sound of silence.”
And then the great truth we witness every day; true when first spoken but more chilling now than ever they were: “And in the naked light I saw/Ten thousand people, maybe more/People talking without speaking/People hearing without listening/People writing songs that voices never share/And no one dare/Disturb the sounds of silence.”
And no one dare! Can that be true down south where a President appears to be running amok and beyond the control of the powerful men who are supposed leaders of the Republican Party?
“Fools said I, you do not know/Silence like a cancer grows/ Hear my words that I may teach you/Take my arms that I might reach you …“But my words, like silent raindrops fell/And echoed in the wells of silence.”
But I don’t despair. There must always be hope. Hope that someday, the corrupt silence that now binds so many world leaders to the pursuit of riches and power will end. Hope that the silence coveted by Thoreau can become the norm for our political leaders and ourselves.
It is 600 years or so since Blaise Pascal, a physics, math and geometry genius, said: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” He argued that we fear the silence, preferring entertaining distractions to thoughtful considerations and the stirring of conscience a session with “the solitude chair” could bring.
His challenge; Thoreau’s challenge; Paul Simon’s challenge; Our challenge: To listen to and in the silence – and not be afraid.