Posted by: Bill Tracy | December 15, 2009

Afraid of Ourselves?

I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.

Ecclesiastes, 1:14

How long can you be quiet? Have you ever been at some event where they call for a “moment of silence”? Usually, the “moment” is about 10 or 15 seconds. That’s all most of us can tolerate simply being, with nothing apparently happening. There are few people who like silence and solitude. Some tolerate it. A rare few crave it. Others soon go mad.

I once did a “silent weekend” retreat at a place deep in the West Virginia woods. I was living in Washington, DC, and it took most of a day to drive to the place. There were about 10 of us there for this weekend. We arrived Friday afternoon, had a pleasant dinner where we talked and got to know one another. After dinner, the silence descended on us like a cold, ominous snow, starting slowly and deepening over time. No television. No radio. The iPods were locked away far in the future.

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park

Most people sat and read. Some prayed in their way or silently meditated on Christian Bible readings. Some went out and tramped the woods. Between bouts of staring out the window and reading I thought about what it was that made life worth (or not) living. By Saturday afternoon, less than 24-hours into it, we had a casualty. One woman had gone mad. Well, “mad” is surely too strong a word, but she had broken down in tears and could not go on. I was surprised that she seemed so inconsolable. The silence, the being with herself alone, was too much; she could not endure it. The folks running the retreat spent some comfort time talking with her and finally sent her home.

Many people I know can’t stand even a minute of silence in their lives. I know a family that leaves a television going 24-hours-a-day. They may sit in the living room having a conversation with visitors, but the TV does not go off; it’s like a lifeline to them confirming they are not alone. I always saw it as their sort of “home fire,” TV as the new “hearth” I suppose You dare not let it go out for fear of not having fire again. I once had a careless thought to turn their TV off while I was visiting with them. No one was paying attention to it, and to me it seemed a distraction. When I started to do it I was overwhelmed by the impact such an act might have, and I stopped. That TV had been on, literally, for years nonstop. My intention was not to declare war, yet it would have been seen that way on some level.

I have a friend who thinks our inability to embrace even a sliver of silence is driving us crazy. He recently wrote to me:

“I believe that our society is going nuts, even perhaps certifiably so, because we think that being quiet for five minutes, wide awake, fully dressed, not on the toilet, is an insupportable activity. We are a frantic people. Even Europeans are very different in that department.”

We do seem to have become a frantic people. That’s a strong word, but I don’t think it’s wrong in its characterization. Looking it up on I find:


1. Highly excited with strong emotion or frustration; frenzied: frantic with worry.

2. Characterized by rapid and disordered or nervous activity: made a frantic last-minute search for the lost key.

3. Archaic Mad; insane.

I believe it was not this way 50 years ago. I can speculate about what caused the change, but I am not sure why it happened. My first-grade teacher has confirmed my observation. What more reliable source could one possibly have?

In 1953 I entered first grade at St. Teresa’s school in Runnemede. I was the first wave of the baby-boom generation, and the system was not prepared for us. Even with a public school in the town, we had 123 children in my first-grade classroom in this private school. Attendance was posted on the blackboard each day, and I can still see clearly the white chalk against that black background – always a number between 121 and 123. Sister Thomas Bernard, IHM (Immaculate Heart of Mary) may not have been five-feet tall in her sister shoes. Yet she maintained an order in that classroom that was total and absolute. As children we saw her as a supernatural entity; she had such power over us. Thanks to that discipline we learned, and we learned well. [A big hug to her today wherever she may be!]

By contrast, 40 years later I was doing some part-time work driving a school bus in Atlantic City, NJ. I carried 53 first-to-fourth-grade scholars to and from school. There was never a hope for even one second of order on that bus. My perception today is of 53 children all screaming non-stop at the top of their lungs while some crawled from the back of the bus to the front under the seats, and others threw whatever was convenient into whatever direction they were facing. The best solution I ever achieved was simply to drive fast and diminish the amount of time they were on the bus! Looking for a better solution I located an expert. I talked with Sister Thomas Bernard about it. She was still teaching at the time. I was looking for a way to bring order on the bus, I told her. She told me to forget it. She said children of the 1950s were simply different than children today, and no one could run a classroom with over 100 children as she had done in 1953.

How fragile we can be

How fragile we can be

As a final argument I give you baseball. When I came of age in this country it was our proud “national pastime.” Outside of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, there were no bigger heroes than Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle – name your own favorite legend. When you went to a game, people cheered (or booed) when something happened. Otherwise spectators were spectating – participating in the event by quietly watching. Older people were quietly instructing youngsters in the nuances of the game. Lots of people had scorecards and were actually recording the game in its wonderful shorthand. Well, the modern baseball spectacle is nothing like back then. It seems to me hardly anyone is actually watching the game today. Most eyes are on the pyrotechnics of the JumboTron  (a Sony registered trademark I’m told) TV images, 100-feet or more high. When interest in that wanes, there are the antics of a team mascot scurrying around on the field, atop the dugout and in the stands. Tire of that and there’s more than just a hot dog stand available – actual restaurants are dispensing real restaurant-quality food. I haven’t seen anyone sit quietly in the stands and keep score in years. How could you sit quietly when you have to jump up every couple of minutes doing “the wave”? The pace of baseball seems to most people like something from a horse-and-buggy era. Because it is not a frantic game, baseball has been replaced as a “national pastime” by take your choice: football, basketball, NASCAR, pretend wrestling?

Silence leaves us with nothing but ourselves. What is it about ourselves that frightens us so? What are we afraid we will find if we sit quietly? Writing that brings to mind the old Catholic Church phrase “examination of conscience.” That was a period of silence you were supposed to observe just before going into the confessional to tell on yourself. Maybe in their 2000-year history they had found the only way most of us can really look at ourselves is if we can immediately tell someone else and ask for forgiveness. Geez, I hope that’s not true!

Excuse me while I go turn on the TV. I’m afraid not to.



  1. In silence . . .
    the flower blooms in the soundless rush of crisp april winds.
    harmonic notes of a mockingbird’s concert wraps tendrils of pleasure through the bushes, as the lone woman bends
    plucking and cutting of yesterdays yeild
    in a garden of plenty such as Boaz’ field
    Silence is GOLDEN an so is the moment
    one captures in thought with ne’er a sound
    to mar the beauty in one fragment
    of the nothingness that is the quiet peace in mind.

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