And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never shared
No one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
—Paul Simon, “The Sound of Silence“
As a child, I remember being told to make a wish when blowing out birthday candles. The trick was that you weren’t allowed to tell anyone about your wish; if you spoke your desire aloud, the wish would not come true. You had to be silent for the magic to work.
I have found the corollary of this childhood wisdom to be true in my own experience over the last few years: the more I spoke about what I wanted, what I was working on, what I wanted to become, the slower and less likely its materialization would be. The main project of 2016—In Defense of Hatred—was something I spoke about and asked feedback on almost without cessation. Its current quality and state of completion are a testimony to incompleteness, good as the ideas at its root may have been.
These are not particularly new discoveries.
According to Aristotle, Catharsis (which translates roughly as “purge” with a cleansing connotation) was one of the goals of high tragedy. It would draw forth the excess and irrational emotions that arise from the sufferings of life, and exorcise them vicariously through the enactment of the play. With the pity and fear excised, the Greek citizens could return to life with a better chance of reigning themselves under the power of their own reason, without the dangerously whimsical emotions overpowering their judgment.
Not long afterwards, the Stoics practiced “negative visualization,” in which the practitioner would meditate on all the worst possible things that could happen to him. Perhaps he became ill or injured to the point of permanent disability; perhaps he could lose the use of his hands or his feet tomorrow. Perhaps his wife or children would die in some terrible accident. Perhaps he would be robbed, or beaten, or lose honor in the eyes of everyone he loved. With all of these terrible possibilities viscerally experienced in his mind’s eye, he would wake up more prepared to handle the pettier tragedies of day to day life, and also with a new appreciation for how comparatively wonderful the real world was. His anxieties and fears would be, at least momentarily, purged.
The Jewish practice of scapegoating, in which the sins of the town were piled onto a goat, and then the goat was driven out into the desert to die of exposure, also acknowledges this truth of human nature.
Modern students and young adults raised on a steady diet of self-esteem and equality—the spiritual equivalent of McDonald’s with a side of bleach—have been taught that virtue has to do with what you think and say, rather than what you do. They speak about what they believe, what they think is important, about what’s wrong with the world, because this is what they’ve been taught is moral. If they understood the enervating effect of saying their plans aloud, they might not care anyways: to them, goodness lies in thought, and not in action. But in their own lives, unfulfilled dreams and empty promises form a weak foundation for living a happy life. Health, relationships, work, and even enjoyable recreation, are all best achieved by habit, repetition, and orientation towards a goal in mind. Nietzsche said that happiness is feeling one’s power increasing, but power can only increase relative to a goal, whether that goal is as grand as reigning over a nation, or as mild as running a full mile without stopping. Anything can be achieved in thought in a matter of seconds. True, sustainable happiness comes from power of action, manifest in the world of matter and other people, not the world inside your own head.
It can be tempting to think “I will make others hold me accountable to my resolutions and goals by stating them aloud.” The logic holds in certain cases, after all: a teacher’s assignments and grading impels a student to read their assigned books and go through their homework exercises. The witness and support of families at a wedding make the marital vows more difficult to break. But in both of these instances, you have formal and informal obligations binding other people to hold you to account. Your friends and family will confront you and challenge you if you aren’t putting in the effort to make your marriage work. Your teacher and parents will confront you and challenge you if you aren’t doing your homework. Can you really say the same thing about the friends that may or may not read your New Years resolutions on Facebook? Are you really thinking they will hold you accountable, or are you relying upon your own sense of shame, should you not fulfill your stated goals, to compel you to act? The former can sometimes be effective, but in my own experience, the latter almost never is. More likely than this, if you are courageous enough to look at your heart honestly: you want to appear as a motivated, powerful, interesting person who has their life under control.
As Margaret Thatcher said, “power is like being a lady… if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”
It’s possible that the unmotivating effect of future shame upon me has something to do with my own generation and Millennial education. But the nature of cathartic purging is timeless, and it is unlikely that the motivation gained by fear, shame, and guilt will outweigh the motivation lost by feeling as though you’ve taken the first few steps when you haven’t.
I have accumulated about five New Years resolutions. Needless to say, you won’t be hearing about most of them here. But I will reveal one, as cryptically as I can: I will not write songs that voices never share. I will guard my thoughts and goals like secrets, not from other people per se, but from the neon god that invites us to purge all of our dreams and desires and motivations into itself, where it will be lost forever as if in a cloud.
If you have to do something with your New Year resolutions, consider writing them down—by hand. It doesn’t matter what you do with the paper; frame it, tuck it up in a drawer, or crumple it up and throw it away. It is the act of writing that is important. Writing clarifies your thoughts, and it helps purge the need to share it.
2016 was a year characterized by many things, but perhaps nothing more than noise. Noise in politics in particular, with more lies and nonsense coming from academia and news networks than I would have thought possible outside of an overtly communist or fascist state. For myself, I plan on making 2017 a year of focus, sharing less, speaking less, and, without specifying in advance, accomplishing more.
Let 2017 be a year of silence. Not silence from spitefulness, not from revenge, not from sadness or anger or frustration, but silence from understanding, from control, from self-discipline. Silence from desire, from dreams of actions and accomplishments, rather than thoughts and words that amount to little and are all just noise in the crowd. The more people speak, the louder you have to speak for your voice to be heard. It isn’t long, by this equation, that everything becomes noise.
Let 2017 be a year of silence. Then we will see if perhaps 2018 can be a year of music.