Sound and Fury by Jennifer F. Steil

All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone—Blaise Pascal

A few days ago I walked into my locker room at the gym to find a teenage girl putting makeup on at the mirror. She had spread out a few dozen tubs of powders and creams and plugged in her iPod on the counter next to her. Oblivious to the fact that the dozens of other women sharing the locker room might not share her taste in music, or want to hear music in the locker room at all, she bobbed her head in time with the thudding beat in between swipes of green on her eyelids.

The next day, as I was showering after a swim, someone climbed into the adjacent shower with a portable radio blaring Pink Floyd’s The Wall at top volume. I had been peacefully turning over ideas for my latest book in my mind, and the sudden din scrambled my thoughts, despite my usual fondness for Pink Floyd. Annoyed, I headed back to the locker room to dress. As I was pulling on my jeans, yet another woman came in with salsa music blasting from her phone. She had only been there a few minutes when the Shower Woman (who was not a teenager, as I had originally thought, but a woman in her late forties) returned, the Beatles’ Michelle, Ma Belle creating a hellish cacophony with the salsa. Grabbing the rest of my things, I fled.

But there are increasingly fewer places to which I can flee. The coffee shops where I used to like to sit for several hours in the afternoons to work, or even to chat with a friend, now all have either a television or throbbing music. In the breakfast room of the remote ecolodge where we went one recent weekend for a quiet retreat, the Christmas tree in the corner whined tinny Christmas carols over and over until my husband finally begged them to turn it off. It’s nearly impossible to find a restaurant where conversation with friends does not have to compete with a sound system. Three times this month my husband and I have had to ask our waiter to please turn down the music so that we can hear each other.

This week my daughter’s summer school took a field trip to a playground within a local mall. We arrived early, before stores turned on their lights and opened their doors. I felt oddly relaxed. I never feel relaxed in a mall. I couldn’t figure out why. Then suddenly my heart sped up, my muscles tensed, and I felt an urge to flee. The sound systems had all been turned on at once, the staticky music from overhead speakers competing with the televisions and radios blaring from each store. There was no way to shut it out or avoid it.

While I currently live in La Paz, Bolivia, I have had countless similar experiences living in the United States, the United Kingdom, and in Jordan. The pervasion of noise into every waking hour of our days knows no national borders. And I find myself thinking, why are we so afraid of silence? Why can we not be alone with our thoughts for even a nanosecond of our day? Have we lost our ability to think thoughts without a soundtrack, to have daydreams with no director? Why does even an intimate conversation with a friend require background music?

I love music. I even occasionally keep music on while I am working—if it is either classical or in a language I don’t understand. But I would never dream of inflicting my music on other people. I would never turn it on in a locker room, a coffee shop, or any other public place. I would never even blast it in my home if neighbors could be disturbed. And I don’t understand why an increasing number of people feel compelled to share their personal taste with everyone around them. Have we all become so selfish we cannot imagine any desire but our own? Nor do I understand why restaurants and coffee shops insist on playing music that most of the patrons, if polled, would vote against. We tolerate rather than enjoy it.

Music shapes our thoughts and alters our moods, provoking tears, nostalgia, anxiety, or even anger.  It fills our heads with the words, thoughts, and emotions of others. But if we spend every second of every day plugged into the sounds and words of others, don’t we lose touch with our selves? I know that I need time away from words, away from sounds, so that my thoughts can shape themselves, away from outside influence. This is largely why I run, swim, hike, and do yoga. To give my brain space. To create room for words to enter. Words that are my own. It’s often difficult to figure out what mood I am in until the music is turned off and I am alone with myself.

It’s not always easy to be alone with one’s mind. I understand the desire to keep painful thoughts and emotions at bay with constant distraction. But the cost is an impaired ability to focus. And while music might soothe or uplift the person who has chosen it, it can have the opposite effect on everyone around her. Scores of recent studies have found that unwanted noise increases aggression, causes stress hormones to flood the bloodstream, impairs work performance, causes impotence, increases blood pressure and pulse, damages memory, and triggers a host of other health problems. No wonder we live in such a jittery, anxious world.

Walking around with our own personal soundtracks prevents us from engaging with each other and the greater world. Every day I watch kids wander into traffic, wrapped up in their private music. When I smile and say hello to strangers on the street, most of them don’t even hear me. Surely something is lost when members of a society no longer interact in even the most basic ways.

Locker room women, I want you to enjoy your music. I really do. But I want you to enjoy it in the privacy of your own home, car, or in the Arctic tundra. And I wish for you the ability to be alone with your mind. Aren’t your own, untainted thoughts worth a glance once in awhile—a capella?

(Written with the aid of BOSE noise-cancelling headphones)

About Jennifer F. Steil