Sara Maitland: Silence: Its power, and its glory

We seem embarrassed by it, but we could all do with more of the sort of respite offered by today's two-minute pause

We have a strange love-hate relationship with silence. We believe we admire and honour it. We certainly acknowledge that silence is good for our health, not just mental but physical. For all the evidence suggests that, among other benefits, regular periods of silence lower blood pressure, reduce stress, improve concentration, aid digestion and improve memory. Too much noise is damaging to our hearing, our sleep rhythms and our ability to process information.

More, we venerate silence as the wellspring of creativity, wisdom and profound thought – the "school of genius". That was said of solitude originally, but since the Romantic poets took to exploring their true inner selves in the most sublime places they could find, uncontaminated by the "shades of the prison house", solitude and silence have become inextricably linked. Culturally, we give full assent to Kafka's claim that "there can never be enough silence around one when one writes", and to Woolf's assertion that a woman writer needs "a room of her own". We agree with Carlyle that "under all speech lies a silence that is better. Silence is deep as Eternity; speech is shallow as time", and with Keats that "heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter". We declare that creativity is a universal human good, and silence and solitude are needed to develop it.

Similarly, we in the West have a respect for and fascination with the religions of the East, particularly Buddhism, and this seems to be grounded in the silence of meditation. Within the Christian tradition too, there is now a renewed interest in silence; the retreat movement is booming; the spirituality of the Desert Fathers is newly popular. In the 18th century, William Lecky wrote of them as "hideous, distorted and emaciated maniac[s], without knowledge, without patriotism, without natural affection".

What underlies this whole strand of thought is that silence enhances self-awareness and allows us to be in touch with our "inner" (and more real) life and is therefore somehow "authentic" even if we are not all creative geniuses. We seek the silence of the wilderness, or the psychoanalyst, in a noble pursuit of our own true identity. In a slightly different way, the "proper" response to extreme feelings, positive or negative, is held to be silence. Awestruck and dumbstruck are synonymous. Whether it be the spontaneous silence before the applause when a performance deeply moves us or the banner headline about an "unspeakable crime" (which always means the newspaper is about to speak of it at great length), words are supposed to fail us at extreme moments, and only silence is appropriate.

So, yes, we love silence. Why then do we do everything possible to avoid it? Why do we wilfully and determinedly set about eliminating it from our actual lives? There are now more mobile phones than people in Britain; instant and constant verbal communication is experienced not so much as a pleasure, but as a necessity. Background music, even in shopping malls where there is already a great deal of noise, so that no one can actually hear the music, is ubiquitous. The length of an acceptable silent pause on the radio has been reduced steadily over the last decade. Silence in public places, like libraries or churches, is increasingly considered oppressive rather than valuable. The silence of mourning is being replaced by cheering. What was being applauded at Rhys Jones's funeral? An 11-year-old was shot dead on the street. Why were we not silenced?

Modernity is necessarily noisy, even in the simple sense that cities are noisier than villages. The progression from walking through riding and motoring to flying is a progression in volume as well as speed. A tumble dryer is noisier than a washing line; a hairdryer than a towel; a vacuum cleaner than a broom. Nothing is getting any quieter. One might somehow expect then that silence would be more valued, treated as precious, protected like a species in danger of extinction; but this is clearly not happening at any physical or social level.

It is not happening at the cultural level, either. More and more people are urged to "talk about it". To speak out is a virtue; the oppressed must "come to voice", men must learn to "express their emotions", women to articulate their discontents. Despite the broad acceptance that quiet reduces stress, enhances and enables calm, no such peace is offered to the over-stressed. No mental hospital makes any provision for those who need some silent space – on the contrary, liberal and progressive psychiatry offers "talking cures". And indeed this may be right for many, even most, highly anxious, depressed or disconnected individuals. But it seems strange that there should be no provision for silence even for those who want it, and that solitude is seen only as an extreme punishment, amounting even to torture.

In 1988, the psychiatrist Anthony Storr commented: "The burden with which we are at present loading personal relationships is too heavy for those fragile craft to carry.... Love and friendship are of course an important part of what makes life worthwhile. But they are not the only source of happiness." Thirty years later we have still not taken this on board, but instead seek ever more and more social connections, however thin, rather than seeking silent nourishment.

We may believe that silence is a crucial source of creativity and strong identity, and that creativity and strong identity are good, but we do not encourage children to enjoy or use silence. Indeed, we actively prevent them from doing so. We fill their private space with noise: most teenagers have a television, as well as music in some form, in their own bedrooms. This is surely the worst of all possible worlds: the young person is neither silent alone, nor engaging in genuine social interaction. We monitor and manage their lives, filling them with social activity. A large number of adults recall times of solitude, ideally in the open air, doing "nothing" quietly, as among the most positive memories of childhood – and yet they energetically prevent their own young from experiencing these delights.

Overall, our young people are materially better off and have a longer life expectancy than ever before, but are not happier. It does not seem extreme to wonder whether there is some link between the painful increase in both behavioural problems and depression in adolescents and the constant over-stimulation and compulsory noise that we adults force upon them.

Silence is coming to feel sinister. Nervous chatter breaks out to cover even brief moments of social silence; "sulking" is experienced as threatening and any failure to respond as both aggressive and judgmental; "loners" are now represented as dangerous and psychopathic, and the more socially retiring as selfish or neurotic – bad or mad. All this suggests a cultural fear of silence.

A recent manifestation of this fear is the withdrawing of the right to silence, with the presumption of innocence, from suspected criminals who do not choose to answer police questions or to take to the witness stand in their own defence. This ancient privilege, based in a Christian culture's recognition of Jesus's original refusal to answer to his court, could only be sacrificed by a society that sees silence as intrinsically dangerous, anti-social or abnormal.

We are terrified of silence and, as with most truly frightening things, we honour it in the abstract and resist it in the quotidian. We construct silence as merely an absence, a blank, rather than an autonomous and powerful force. But I am not sure why we have become so fearful. Perhaps we are terrified of silence because we are terrified of death. Because death is silent, it is easy to believe that silence is death, so perhaps making a lot of noise is a symbolic way of denying death. Any silence becomes a reminder of the long silence of the grave.

Yet many of the great forces by which we live, are silent. The vast immensity of space is silent, because sound waves, unlike light or radio waves, cannot travel through a vacuum. Gravity, electricity, the warmth of sunlight, the turning of the tides are all silent. Organic growth, life itself, the division of cells is silent.

Silence creates and sustains not death, but the circumstances and possibility of being alive. Silence is a very subtle and lovely thing; it requires practice, discipline and nourishing; it gives back grace and growth and well-being. We lose it at our peril.

Sara Maitland is author of 'A Book of Silence'