by Maclin Horton

When I heard at an early age the puzzling statement that silence is golden, I fixed permanently in my mind an association between silence and brightness. I didn’t quite know what it meant, but the idea of silence as something richly shining was alluring. I figured out soon enough that the words were frequently not an observation but a command not to speak. And in time, I saw that they were also often an attempt to keep the unmentionable unmentioned, giving the phrase a sly and disreputable twist. Still, my original conception persisted, and with it the suggestion that silence is a thing to be valued.

Much later when I read The Waste Land, I remember being struck by this passage:

Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

Again silence and light are associated. The experience which Eliot references is mysterious and probably inexpressible, but the sense of the transcendent is vividly realized. It’s easy to see why silence is so often recommended as a medicine for the mind and soul. The religious turn to it in prayer and meditation. Even those with a secular worldview will see its benefits in our world of digital devices. One needs no special metaphysical framework to recognize that silence can have a calming and freeing effect on the mind.

And yet silence is a source of disappointment and frustration to me. I have tinnitus, so there is always noise in my head. Its visual representation is not gold or light but something more like the dull green patina of oxidized bronze. Tinnitus is a condition which so far has only tentative explanations, and no cure. It’s often described as a “ringing,” though I don’t think that’s especially accurate. It’s a very high-pitched unvarying tone. You might get something like it if you recorded the ringing of a tiny bell, snipped out a fraction of a second or so of the recording, and duplicated that snippet many times over. It sounds like the faint whine that was sometimes emitted by old C.R.T. screens. 

I don’t know exactly when it started for me, but I began to notice it somewhere in middle age. I have no reason to think it has any particular external cause. I probably have had less exposure to very loud music than most people my age, and have never worked in a noisy environment … unless, now that I think about it, when I was driving a tractor for eight hours each day during my teenage summers. The medical consensus is that the condition often develops for no apparent reason as people age.

My tinnitus is not a major problem for me. Everyone who lives past fifty accumulates a list of minor aches and pains. Tinnitus ranks with these for me: annoying and inconvenient, but not much more. Most of the time I don’t notice it. But the quieter my surroundings, the louder, the more insistent, the less ignorable, grows the noise in my head. I know it doesn’t actually get louder, but the absence of other sounds makes it more prominent. There is, then, nothing very pleasant about external silence to me. My tinnitus leaves me sometimes hungering for a total absence of sound.

Somewhere George MacDonald describes heaven as a place where “all that is not music is silence.” We can only conjecture about the life after this one, and this is certainly one of the more appealing guesses I’ve encountered. I’ve always loved music and sought it out to the point of gluttony. But if it turns out that this particular conjecture is true, and if, on arrival in Heaven, I were given a choice, I would say, “Please, sir, before the music, may I have a few minutes of the pure and golden silence of which I’ve heard so much?”

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