Silence and Cell Phones

This piece originally aired on “All Things Considered” (Minnesota Public Radio). Click here for an audio connection on the MPR site, or just read the piece.

Driving to work this morning, I suddenly started to pay attention to the drivers in my rear view mirror.  It all started when a large SUV nearly hit me from behind.  The driver was jabbering away on a cell phone.  I’m sure the conversation was important.  Why else would he jeopardize our safety?

For the next fifteen minutes on I35W I conducted my own scientific survey.  All of the drivers had cell phones glued to their ears.

Makes me wonder.  Are we that uncomfortable being alone?  Or do we think we’re so important that the rest of the world can’t get along without us?  Or perhaps we are afraid that the rest of the world WILL get along very well without us – so we need to keep reminding others that we exist because we’re not sure we really do unless someone else is filling the speechless void?  I wonder.

As concerned as we should be about the terrorism of distracted drivers on the highway, I’m more concerned about what our use of cell phones says about us as a people.  We are addicted to outside stimuli. Less and less comfortable with silence. Less and less attuned to wonder. More and more filled with chatter. More wordy – less thoughtful.

Sociologist Eugen Rosenstock-Huessey once observed – before the advent of the cell phone – that for many folks the drive to and from work was the only true “free zone” during their day.  It was time for solitude and reflection, a transitional pause to get your bearings, time to make the transition from home to work and from work to home. These were trips to be celebrated for what they were – opportunities to stand free from the herd – the herd mentality of religion, nationalism and ideology.  They were times to think.

Maybe I’m just getting older.  I am.  And that’s a good thing.  Because I’m getting tired of looking in my rear view mirror at someone with a cell phone stuck in his ear because he can’t stand the silence…or the sound of her own heartbeat.  Someday that beat will stop and there will only be the silence.  Maybe we ought to put down the phone and listen before there’s nothing to hear.

17 thoughts on “Silence and Cell Phones

  1. I love this, too. Love what you’ve said and how you’ve said it.

    I don’t drive. If I did, I think I would be among the ones playing the radio or mp3 player louder than people on the street would like. I can’t think of anything that would be more fun during an unavoidable commute.

    As to being addicted to outside stimuli, at this point in life, I know I am. The loneliness of my home life is unbearable without the artificial conversation of television in the background. Most of the time I try to choose programs wisely so anything that lingers in my psyche enhances it somehow, but still, a sort of ache often encroaches if I switch off the only other people. I’m working on that.


    • There’s nothing more lonely than an unbearable home life. I’m so sorry you experience that but won’t ask why. Not my business. Do you do meals together at you house…without the television on? Is it all adults, adults and kids, young adults only, multi-generational family, or just you and a friend, a lover, a husband? Makes a huge difference who’s there and whether they want to be there. However that may be, there’s a huge difference between loneliness and solitude. Solitude is full. Loneliness is empty. One’s own need for silence…pure silence…undistracted awareness of where one really is in space and time…is a way to get centered and grounded. Otherwise, we’re just spinning like tops here, there, and everywhere, moving to whatever music is coming at us. I wish you the gift of solitude and silence. The fullness you’ll find there is worth the awkwardness of the initial sense of empty time and space. Thank you for sharing, and thank you for your kind comment about the piece..


      • Thank you for talking to me. I understand what you mean about solitude. I know how peaceful it can be. That’s why I want to find my way back to being able to thrive within it.

        I’m not so proud anymore, so I’ll tell you that I live alone in a small house that’s literally fraying at the edges. My companions are unemployment, fear, and abilities that are sporadically valued. I think and feel a little too much. Every once in a while I venture out to see my sister or my daughter, but they’re busy people, thank goodness. I struggle with the serenity prayer because opinions about what I can change vary wildly among experts and even inside my own mind. Mostly, I try to keep writing because worse things happen when I stop writing, whether the TV’s on or not.


  2. And you may remember when I showed you what I wrote in high school about people being scared to be alone with themselves. But these drives up to deal with my daughter tend to be a little more time than I care to deal with…… I have spent too much time with the subject of her and her M.S. than I care for…..


  3. Pingback: Super-Secret Rules of Adulthood (Failing Beautifully Is the First Step Out the Front Door) « Bluebird Blvd.

      • I look forward to reading that. I mean, the guy seemed to think he was giving away some kind of secret by “revealing” that Wall Street is a cesspool…


        • Hi,Tony. Yes, like we didn’t know that already? But the reactions are fascinating. “He just blew them away with a howitzer…” and such comments. What he said you are no supposed to ever say out loud if you’re one of the mob. You don’t break the code of silence. If you can’t stand it any longer, you take your money and run, but you don’t break the code of silence. Think mafia. Think Gangster Disciples.


  4. Spot on!

    I’ve posted similar thoughts on technology and our use of it. I find it startling how often I will pass a group of my own friends sitting in the same space, but all glued to their mobile devices…texting, playing games or interacting with social media. It’s as if we have all gotten a nervous tick that tell us that something is happening while we are unaware, while life is happening right before us and we more often than not miss valuable opportunities to connect with those right around us…IN THE FLESH!

    It will require conscious efforts on our part and on those we love to be present to the moment with those right around us and make the decided effort not “unplug” more often to enjoy the wider spectrum of what life has to offer…


    • You hit the nail on the head. IN THE FLESH. We are not disembodies spirits. To act as though we are, ignoring the people in the same space while focused on people in cyberspace, indulges in a fantasy and reduces relationships to abesnteeism.


  5. LOVE THIS. One of the very few things that will drive me to fury is folks texting and/or talking on a cell phone while driving.

    Texting has become so common in Texas (and South Louisiana a place my family visited by car over Xmas) that there are tell-tale signs that you are driving in the vicinity of texters. Cell phone people tend to slow down; texters drift from lane-to-lane, much like a drunk driver.

    My point is— I’ve wanted to write about this myself, but I can’t write about it without diving face-first into a state of self-righteous judgment. Now that I’ve read your essay, I’m thrilled that I set my own ideas about this topic aside. Your thoughts are so much more ruminative and lyrical and kindhearted.

    In fact, you directed me to a new soft place in my heart for people who insist on being on their cell phones at all times. Thanks to your essay, this image is already helping to picture this person as lonely and/or afraid of his/her own company. (It helps a great deal better than my previous framing device, which was picturing that every driver had a back injury and had forgotten that s/he had taken prescribed muscle relaxants.)

    Lonely! *Shakes head* What a thought.


    • Aren’t we all a little afraid that, if we stop, there will be nothing? Being and nothingness. And it’s not just some of us, as you say, it’s all of us who at times fill the silence to numb the fear or give false assurance that we’re really there and worth being there without someone telling us so. The voices on the other end of the cell phone and the “texts” (which are, in fact, anything but real texts) become a collective umbillical cord to … I don’t know what. They keep us from going inside where deepest self-affirmation and affirmation of others comes from. Thanks for comment, Courtenay. Have a great day.


  6. I like this. I agree with what you say, but especially the being alone in the car thing. It’s a great time to think and imagine — or just to let one’s mind wander (as long as the major focus is on driving.) I often recommend using the in-car isolation to my clients. At the conference I attended this past Thursday and Friday, one speaker pointed out — backing it up with neurological evidence – that we can only attend to one thing at a time. That doesn’t mean we can’t do more than one thing, but the second activity has to be automatic, like loading the dishwasher — if one has done it enough so it is indeed automatic. She had particular words to describe both kinds of activity. I’ll recover them when I get to reviewing my notes. That will be after I get these tax data accumulated — not an automatic activity. Anyway, neither driving the car nor talking on the cell phone qualifies as an automatic activity.


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