The world is a noisy place; cultivating interior silence can help
If you’re one of those people who procrastinates on home-improvement projects, I have a tip: invite me to stay with you.
Preferably your project will involve sand-blasters, jackhammers, and a Red-Bull-pumped crew who will set up shop directly outside my window. If so, guaranteed within 48 hours you’ll jump into action, order the supplies and call the contractors.
During my tenure in one Los Angeles apartment, the six-story complex across the back alley was torn down and rebuilt. In the next place the city re-did the sewer lines and, for a period of months, tore up the street. I stayed at a friend’s condo in Palm Springs: the HOA (Homeowners Association) chose that month to prune the two acres of trees and re-pave the parking lot.
Then I went to Rome for two weeks. My Airbnb studio was on the third floor, facing the courtyard. “Quiet,” the site said. “Tranquil. Secluded.”
Forty-eight hours after I arrived, so did a construction crew to rehab the apartment directly below me. Sanders, drills, non-stop loud conversation from nine in the morning until nine at night, for three days running.
I told the “host,” “If you were planning a construction project while I was there, you should have told me!” “Sorry,” she texted back.
I took my usual brave stand. I started a “noise journal” that went back twenty years: a catalogue of the piteous indignities to which I’d been subjected; a case against the cosmos that could only end in a resounding conviction of guilty! I make no noise myself! Why couldn’t the world, just once, return the favor? I ask for nothing except peace and quiet: why, time after time, did I land …
Somewhere in the midst of this pity fest a thought dawned upon me: Nobody is going to feel sorry for you. I’m a well-educated American, I do what I love for work and I was in Rome, for heaven’s sake. Boo-hoo.
The fact is I’m sensitive to noise. Noise thus seems to follow me. Also, I choose to live in a city of ten million people. Also, the world is simply noisy. In the city it’s car alarms, sirens and yipping lap dogs. In the country it’s chainsaws, ATVs and shooting ranges.
To be fair, as a writer and an introvert, I really do crave silence. To be fair, I’d had a string of “bad luck.” But real bad luck is a cancer recurrence, a kid who dies, a life in solitary confinement.
I thought of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–97), a cloistered Carmelite nun who wrote of being driven to distraction by the sister behind her in chapel who made a gratingly annoying sound, “like two shells rubbing together,” apparently by clicking her rosary against her teeth.
Thérèse trained herself by the strictest discipline—she comically describes sweating with the effort—not to turn around and glare at her “abuser.” She decided to imagine that the sound that to her was excruciating was like music to Christ.
That’s not sappy. To refrain from psychological violence is the mark of a highly mature spirituality. We never have to be doormats. We do what we can to change a situation. But if the situation can’t be changed—and the places in chapel were assigned for life—we’re called to accept.
In a way, we all live in a cloister. “Life is a night spent at an uncomfortable inn,” observed Teresa of Avila, another famous Carmelite. That was in the mid-1600s. Things haven’t changed much.
None of that stopped the drills and the sanders. But suddenly I thought, What if those workmen were preparing a place for someone I love?What if they were putting their hearts and souls into preparing a beautiful apartment for, say, my little sister Meredith?
The sound was no longer grating, an offense against me, my work, my space. It wasn’t exactly music—but it was close enough that I was able to lie down and take a long, peaceful nap.