- Turning Down the Noise: The quiet power of silence in a busy world, by Christine Jackman. Murdoch Books. $32.99.
Seeking silence as a means of solace and enlightenment has concentrated human thought for millennia, as quotes from ancient wisdom will attest - many finding trivialised expression in popular culture. Somewhat ironically, for me, at least, a 20th century quip from Woody Allen seems apt: "God is silent; if only we could get Man to shut up".
Of course, our reaction to noise is subjective, but any attempt to lower its impact in a crowded, confusing, and increasingly loud world is akin to chasing shadows through a labyrinth. Eminently worthwhile, nevertheless, since medical science has bountiful evidence of harm caused by over-exposure to noise. However, finding a balance between seeking silence and sustaining a usefully valid life within the digital world is likely to deliver a catch-twenty-two conundrum.
Therefore, dear reader, a key element of this wise, witty, and engaging book concerns the dangers of trying too hard. Despite being painfully obvious that some of the more visible (and audible) members of our human species appear to lack evidence of much coherently useful thought in claiming simplistic solutions to complex problems, many of us will tie ourselves in well-intentioned knots by overthinking how to unravel larger ones. And here, I must confess to being part of this latter group. Sadly, as a left-leaning humanist, with life-long abiding concerns about the manifestly unfair way we constitute society, my journey towards solace was charted by a stress-induced breakdown, clinical depression, and chronic anxiety.
I've always passionately believed in the power of reading to nourish imagination. And since our most persistent problems, such as poverty, prejudice, and inequality, are linked indelibly to failures of the imagination, it follows that literature - especially books such as Turning Down the Noise - will play important roles in our social, cultural, and political affairs. All my published writing - novels, short stories, essays, and poetry - has been based on this underlying imperative. This is not to say that I have succeeded, but allows the probability of an honest attempt.
Christine Jackman is an accomplished journalist, foreign correspondent, and communications consultant, with a keen eye for research detail, and a sensitive ear for the complicated cacophony of modern life. She was aware from the start that she might risk sounding like a "pretentious git" in an age when "hippy-like" wellness remedies are commonplace, and I'm pleased to report that Jackman's literary achievement is both timely and valuable. Was there ever a greater need for solace than being trapped inside a social media maelstrom? Or a better chance to seek silence in a pandemic lock-down?
Jackman's instinctive need for silence arrived early - long before she could name it - when hiding in a Brisbane Kindergarten cubby house until a worried teacher shepherded her back to the rest of the class. Years later, with the loss of her beloved father becoming a painful reality and the accumulated stress of a busy career involving frequent meetings, making her feel "talked out", she began seriously seeking silence.
Early attempts were unconvincing. "I was no closer to working out how to build silence into my daily life . . . Worse, it sometimes felt like an exercise in self-indulgent navel-gazing." So, she decided to use her professional experience and "do it as a journalist would". And this meant going to the experts. Such as Buddhist leaders and Sufi poets, then, significantly, monastic wisdom, which she gathered from - among other places - a retreat at a Benedictine hermitage on the Californian coast. Browsing the bookshop for a guide to Benedictine life, Jackman came across a book written by a monk containing words that resonated with her own dilemma: "In a world where communication is huge, it takes a fair amount of resolution to create for oneself a sphere of silence, in which urgencies are put on hold and words are weighed." Surprised to discover the author to be Father Michael Casey, an Australian monk at Tarrawarra Abbey, in Victorian farmland 90 minutes from Melbourne, Jackman sets up a series of conversations which form an integral part of her spiritual pilgrimage.
The span and depth of Jackman's research is impressive, and often movingly linked to personal experience in engaging and perceptive ways. And she writes with fluently accessible prose. This book flags our troubled times, and its subtle evocations of an unquiet mind in search of sanctuary provide ample opportunity for reflective thought. Silence is often misconstrued. The true test of a relationship is whether you can be comfortable together in public without speaking. Silence deserves a hearing. Just as this book deserves to be read.
- Ian McFarlane's book of poems, The Crucible, is published by Ginninderra Press.