The sound of silence

There was a magical moment in Athens last week when a sudden change in the weather precipitated a light dusting of snow to fall even in some of the city’s most built-up neighborhoods. The sight of the icy confetti dropping from the night sky sparked a million dreams in the capital as Athenians of all ages imagined waking up to a morning of knee-high snowfall and the roads to work and school being blocked by a milk-white wall. But there was something else noticeable that came down with the snow, almost as precious as the dreams that it inspired: silence. In a city that has learned to live with noise just as it has become accustomed to other forms of pollution, the moment that saw a hush fall over its busy streets and tall apartment blocks was priceless. It would have been enough to bring a smile to the face of the ancient Greek comedy playwright Menander. «Nothing is more useful than silence,» he once wrote. Athens benefited greatly from the brief moment of peace that a flurry of snow brought on a midwinter night. Of course, nobody lives in a big city because they want a slow pace of life and tranquillity. But this does not mean that a metropolis like Athens should not be able to offer its residents pockets of serenity and at least a brief respite from the around-the-clock workings of the city. A recent survey indicated that roughly six in 10 people in Athens and Piraeus are regularly exposed to levels of noise that could damage their health. More than physical well-being, it is our mental health that we should be concerned about. French-German sculptor and a founding member of the Dada movement Jean Arp pointed out more than 50 years ago: «Soon silence will have passed into legend. Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation. Tooting, howling, screeching, booming, crashing, whistling, grinding and trilling bolster his ego. His anxiety subsides. His inhuman void spreads monstrously like a gray vegetation.» Over the last couple of months, the city has been particularly noisy but not for the usual reasons such as trucks rumbling through narrow side streets like dinosaurs on the prowl or scooters that buzz in and out of traffic like mosquitoes looking for their next victim nor because of the cacophony of television sets turned up to rock concert volume levels by hard-of-hearing pensioners. No, the recent noise in Athens has been that of chattering with the occasional bellow thrown in for good measure. For if you turn on the TV or radio, that is mostly what you will hear. Even reading some newspaper headlines these days can give you an earache. The Zachopoulos case appears to have given the city’s politicians, media stars and self-appointed know-it-alls a fresh impetus and a clean pair of lungs so that they can all tell us in no uncertain terms what they think and know. Or, as is more commonly the case, what they don’t know or what they have no intention of telling us. However, most of them say enough to confirm that Abraham Lincoln, the 16th US president, was right to say that it is «better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.» The ease with which accusations, counterclaims, threats, innuendo and put-downs have been cast into the city’s air have created a mish-mash of sounds in the atmosphere akin to being stuck at the traffic lights in between two cars with their sound systems blaring. Epithets and allegations have been expelled into the crisp winter evenings like the off-key warbling of an unknown Greek singer on one side and the repetitive thud of an obscure dance track on the other. And all this time, Athenians have been subjected to the daily chainsaw-like ranting of the city’s big personalities. Like the scooters that have had their sound mufflers removed, they sneak up on you just when you thought you could get some peace and quiet. Just as living on arid land makes you appreciate a few drops of water, so living in Athens makes you cherish those brief moments of peace. It is no coincidence that the late Archbishop Christodoulos gained the grudging respect of many Athenians in his final months, when he ditched the public posturing for which he had become known in favor of a more measured approach. The quiet dignity with which he dealt with his illness, as millions of cancer sufferers do in this country and all over the world, helped reconcile him with many Greeks who had at times questioned his judgment. The Church of Greece appears to have got the message and chosen Archbishop Ieronymos, who is regarded as a mild-mannered moderate, to succeed Christodoulos. After all, if devout Greeks cannot look to their church for peace and tranquillity it leaves them with few options. As Mother Teresa said: «We need to find God and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls.» In times of commotion, upheaval or frustration it is often the moments of silence that tell us more about where a society finds itself. The wall of noise that has gone up across Athens does not bode well for its residents. It is worth noting that Paul Simon penned one of his most famous songs, «The Sound of Silence,» in the wake of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. It was not intended as a mournful lament for the political chasm left by JFK’s death, instead it was written as a «societal view on the lack of communication,» as Simon explained. And that is what is most worrying about the current state of events: Amid this constant noise, there is no communication, nor can there be as long as those that are prepared to shout the loudest are allowed to dominate the agenda. Our society finds itself at a point where, to paraphrase the song, people are talking without speaking and people are hearing without listening. That should be a sound too deafening for any of us to bear.