I’m not a big music person, but when I’m driving, I will often listen to the news or a talk show on NPR, much to my teenagers’ chagrin. During my hour-long commute to and from Omaha once a week for my part-time job, I typically have a podcast playing in one earbud.
Yesterday, as I backed out the driveway on my way to attend an evening event, I clicked on the radio to catch the last bit of news for the day. A few seconds later, though, I clicked it off again and instead rolled down my window and drove the rest of the way to my destination in silence.
A brief shower had swept through the south part of town. As I drove I breathed in the scent of rain steaming off the hot pavement. I let the wind have its way with my hair and felt the humid breeze on my face. As I idled at a traffic light, I heard the steady whine of crickets in the field and the piercing call of a red-tailed hawk from its perch atop a telephone pole. I realized that it had been a long time since I’d driven with the radio off.
It was only a 20-minute drive from my house to where I was headed, but when I pulled into the parking lot, I noticed my whole demeanor had changed. My mind was free of clanging thoughts. My pulse was slow and steady, my breathing even, my hands relaxed on the steering wheel.
Later that night, when I mentioned in an Instagram post how much I had enjoyed my silent drive, a friend commented that a year or so ago she’d made a conscious decision to drive with the radio off. “It’s amazing how much more margin I have in my life now,” she said.
Initially I was puzzled by her comment. After all, 15 or 20 minutes of silence is but a drop in the bucket of a typical busy day. How could so little quiet create “more margin” in her life overall, I wondered?
As I thought about my own quiet drive just a few hours before, though, I recalled how I’d slid out of the driver’s seat and ambled unhurriedly across the parking lot, noticing, as I walked, the clouds billowing on the horizon.
I remembered how I’d paused for a few seconds to listen to a meadowlark trill from the prairie grass nearby.
I considered the fact that I’d been noticeably less distracted in my interactions that night, more present to the people with whom I’d engaged.
Our lives are filled with a lot of noise. The clatter of the television, radio and social media. The barrage of advertising. The beeps, dings and ringtones from our smart phones, alerting us to a text, a Facebook comment, a tweet. The back-to-back-to-back meetings at work, the conference calls, the webinars. So accustomed are we to its constancy, we don’t realize how much this relentless noise and distraction taxes our bodies, minds and souls. We also don’t notice how much space this constant noise occupies and how it is infused into every facet of our days.
Spending even a few minutes in silence has an immediate and discernible impact on our physical and mental health, to be sure. But as our less distracted, more present selves step back into the world at large, it’s clear the few minutes of silence we take for ourselves also have a ripple effect, reverberating into our environment and out toward those around us.