Silence and the deliberate life

Music can aide or impede creation. If I’m feeling angry, a frantic hip-hop beat peppered with political lyricism helps me channel my fury. If I’m awestruck, overwhelmed by the joy and beauty inherent in this world, James Horner’s transcendent melodies enable me to process my sentiments. If my thoughts are tinged with the colour of despair, the slow movements of Ludovico Einaudi’s compositions or the gentle sorrow of a live acoustic session encourages me to say what I must. Conversely, music that doesn’t correspond to my mood inhibits my generative capacities; smooth, confident rap lyrics don’t work when I’m trying to organise my thoughts about the Holocaust. But what about silence?

Silence mimics the neutrality of a bare notebook, existing only to adapt to the user’s intention. Yet silence can also be partisan. It can oppress and it can comfort. It can enlighten and it can anger. It can be the precursor to war and the final pit-stop before peace. Silence can be the hallmark of a deep relationship, or the thing that sunders a fragile one. Us humans use silence to commemorate the dead, but we allow it to overcome us in those moments of peak-life, in those instants where words are not enough. 

This noise that silence makes is why I’ve begun to incorporate it as a central part of my creative practice. Now, instead of relying on music to help me work, I write in silence. Or, more accurately, in near-silence, for it is only when I seek silence that I realise how impossible it is to find. For instance, at this very moment, I can hear birdsong. I can hear cars in the distance. I can hear the breath of the house that I live in as it shuttles water through the walls and ceilings, heats up in the winter sun and protects its inhabitants from the inconsistent January rain.  

Of course, this doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned music. Oh no. Music is very much a part of my life. Except its presence is now more deliberate. It has become less of a constant background companion and more like something that receives my full attention. In essence, because of my appreciation of the value and utility of silence, I’ve become more appreciative of the value and utility of sound. Now, it’s not unusual for me to sit for a while, with headphones in, and listen to a playlist. Or to enjoy a new or classic album as I do the washing up. In fact, this deliberate interaction with music is the herald of a greater shift in my life. I’ve grown disenchanted with resolutions, but if I had to choose an overarching focus for the next year I don’t think I could do much better than these three words: “Live more deliberately.” This concept is perhaps easiest to understand if we comprehend its opposite, “arbitrary”. 

The word “arbitrary” has two main meanings. The first concerns physicists, mathematicians and the like. For them, something that is arbitrary is something that enables the work to continue, ideas to be explored, theories to be posited, and calculations and predictions to be made. For example, in mathematics, single letter notations (n, x, y etc.) are often used to represent unknowable or incalculable figures. Without these notations, many calculations and theorems would be impossible. Thus, single letter notations are “arbitrary” because they allow mathematicians to continue working, despite uncertainty and imperfect knowledge. The second sense in which the word “arbitrary” is used is more easily recognisable. It is something done without rhyme or reason. For example, the way the SS officers in charge of German concentration camps selected candidates for liquidation was arbitrary. They followed no schemes. They overlooked race, gender, age and physical capacity. Those marked for death as they stumbled out of the box cars were marked due to the inconsistent and incomprehensible whims of the SS. This latter meaning of “arbitrary” is what allows us to understand the meaning of “Live more deliberately.”

To live more deliberately is to make every choice, in every domain of our lives—be it family, friendships, work or health—with mindfulness. It is to evaluate our most important desires, our deepest fears and our most prized ideals, and endeavour to commit to deeds that are in alignment with them. If we aspire to honesty, then the lack or presence of honesty must be taken into account in every decision we make. If we believe in giving more value to the world than we take from it, then every word, deed and thought must be accounted for in units of value credited and debited. 

That is a snapshot of the deliberate life, and that is what I am trying to move towards.