We all talk too much. You, me, everyone. Watch people in the street or on a bus, in a restaurant or in a theatre interval: yap yap yappety-yap. What are they saying? What is so important that they say it with such intensity? As for politicians, whether in or out of the Assembly/Dail/Parliament: besides being very tedious, they rarely shut up, even though so much of what they say, as the Beatles put it, is meaningless.
Which is one reason I found the BBC2 programme The Big Silence so interesting. (If you haven’t seen it yet, tune in to BBC2 on Friday at 9.00 pm and you’ll get the second in the series of three.) It’s a simple idea: five people spend eight days in silence – with a daily break for a chat with a sort of mentor – at a Jesuit retreat house. The five are not particularly religious people and there’s no intention (as far as I can tell) to win them to Christianity, let alone Catholicism. But we watch and learn as these people with busy lives try to cope without the comforting distractions of modern life – TV, the internet, mobile phones, radio, newspapers. Even after a single day, the effect is striking: disorientation, self-questioning, tears.
So is it that, in silence, we find some kind of wisdom? Or is it, as one young woman in the group said, we’re ‘bored out of our tits’? Certainly plunging into an ocean of silence, even for a matter of days, looks like having a profound effect on these people. In the silence they’re faced, like it or not, with the meaning (or meaninglessness) of their lives.
So listen – a modest proposal. Given that we’ve all sorts of Weeks – No Smoking Week, Poetry Week, Breast Cancer Awareness Week – why not have a Big Silence Week? Seven days when everybody, with obvious exceptions like vital emergency services, switched off their phones, unplugged the TV and the internet, stopped talking. If the BBC2 programme is anything to go by, the effect on how we run our society and our lives would be radical. Things assumed to be vitally important would shrink, things buried or ignored would rise up and demand attention.
Unfortunately, I know it’ll never happen. The one thing we human beings are terrified of is looking inside ourselves. Because if we did, we’d have to revolutionize not just ourselves but the society in which we live.