Far out on the Ring Road, which is the long, lonely, isolated highway that runs the circumference of Iceland, you encounter heaven.
Or, it was for me. The further I drove from Reykjavik, Iceland’s busy capital city which houses the bulk of Iceland’s small population, the more quiet it got. Houses and small towns disappeared. I was lucky to see one walking Icelandic sweater (otherwise known as a sheep) as I wound around one long loop of highway after another. I never turned on the radio in my rental car, nor did I put my earbuds in for tunes.
Out in the mounding hills of Western Iceland, where the grasses are densely green in high summer as the temperatures rise barely into the 70s, silence is woven into the countryside like a tapestry. It almost shimmers. Against the backdrop of some of the world’s most stunning scenery, you can choose to immerse yourself in the last of life’s luxuries: silence.
Out here, you can hear yourself think. You can ponder. In silence you can shed the accumulated shit of surreptitious messaging, buy this buy that, the never ending blasting of our brains with news good bad and ugly. For people who have never experienced the stark silence of a deep winter’s day where the falling snow creates a blanket of acoustic featherbeds for the ear, it’s impossible to understand the importance of genuine quiet.
In the silence, we can heal.
According to a 2013 study on mice published in the Journal Brain, Structure and Function, scientists found that those mice exposed to two hours of silence each day developed new cells in the hippocampus. This is the part of our noggin that concerns itself with memory, emotion and learning https://www.lifehack.org/377243/science-says-silence-much-more-important-our-brains-than-thought).
While we need to learn a great deal more about this, what struck me about my month in Iceland riding the high country or driving the Ring Road was how wondrously clean I felt. Unfettered by the fishhooks of invasive ads, billboards, loud radio commercials and the like, my body relaxed and the quality of my thinking improved. I felt free to consider, ponder, wonder.
In an article for Psychology Today, blogger George Michelson Foy pens the following: Such void cuts off the fascist flow of constant information, and allows us to recalibrate. (emphasis mine)
For those of us raised in cities, or far from the relative peace of forests and fields which marked my upbringing, silence is terrifying. It means that wheels of industry have ground to a stop. My GOD. No traffic, no planes overhead, no nuthin.’ That’s horrifying to the developed world. And sweet succor to those of us who were brought up with some semblance of silence, even that marked by the soothing sounds of Nature.
As a Florida-born child, my upbringing was punctuated by afternoon thunderbumpers filled with lightning strikes and dense downpours. Afterwards, as we slid into early evening, the night would fill with the calls of millions of tree frogs. Crickets, whippoorwills and all the other players in the nighttime symphony would join in. That’s how I went to sleep. No TV, no earbuds, no humming of machinery. The rail lines that marked the western boundary of our farmland gave rise to the long, lonely sounds of passenger trains taking people to exotic places. Other than that, there was nothing to interrupt Nature’s reverie but for the occasional snort of a grazing horse near my nighttime window.
Much of this is now gone. As we wipe the earth clean of its forests, grasslands and lakes, we also decimate places where we can immerse ourselves in relative quiet. For each acre we build into tract housing, we lose one more layer of protection against invasive noise.
In 2007, the average American was exposed to some 5000 ads a day https://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/15/business/media/15everywhere.html. I can guarantee you that number has likely doubled. You can’t escape ads on the floor at the grocery stores, ads in your face while trying to pump gas (I DO NOT WISH TO WATCH SOME MORON YAP AT WHILE I’M TRYING TO THINK) ads on people’s boobs telling they’re with stupid or they have a Polo shirt on. Having grown up in Central Florida, the old joke was billboards. Ogden Nash, the great 20th Century poet, wrote
I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree
Indeed, unless the billboards fall
I’ll never see a tree at all!
That was the old method for getting eyeballs on your ads. Now it’s as invasive and painful to the soul as colon cancer is to the body. We need green. We need blue waters and skies. And we desperately need relief from the barrage of bullshit to which we are subjected day in and day out.
We can’t heal in the midst of all this noise. We are, in fact, all rats in Skinner’s Box. We get rewards for responding to ads as opposed to the rewards of being mindful, rested, thoughtful, creative and vastly less stressed.
Here’s the piece. Mental illness- or that which our society euphemistically refers to as “mental illness,” is on the rise in America (https://www.health.com/depression/8-million-americans-psychological-distress). So are suicides, across the board, some 43,000 a year and growing. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for those 10 and older. The opioid crisis is, to me, symptomatic of how desperate each of us is for some modicum of peace, which many seek via substance abuse. Escape, frankly, of just about any kind.
It’s not mental illness so much as a desperation for peace. Emotional, spiritual, physical, intellectual peace.
Peace isn’t gained through substances, nor is it won through immersing ourselves in the eardrum damaging blasts of our buds. Peace is gained through a combination of hard personal work to find inner quiet. That is increasingly difficult in a world so determined to pry open our wallets that we can’t find ourselves much of anywhere without seeing ads, hearing ads, and having ads blasted at us.
One reason I have been in a movie theater only once in the last ten years, and will not go again, is the imposition of some forty minutes of exceedingly loud ads that used to be limited to television. Arrive at your movie in time for a good seat and you are bombarded unmercifully with loud toxic trash for everything from cars to booze, when you only wanted to be entertained. My response to this is to stay home. Like millions of others, I refused to have my personal space invaded. It’s a form of brain rape. It’s bad enough that popcorn is marked up between 700 and 1300%, people are on their phones, they’re rude. I’m no longer willing to shell out $30–35 for a movie experience during which I get slammed with sewage before the movie starts. Done. Finished.
In an excellent article for AdAge by Gary Ruskin in 2004 http://adage.com/article/viewpoint/advertisers-invasion-privacy/39958/, he argues that we’re increasingly tired of being invaded. Clealry nobody listened. If anything it’s getting vastly worse. Witness any attempt to read an article online, and you are bombarded with so much ad fecal matter that you can’t read a single paragraph without being constantly bombed. I particularly despise those loud, uncontrolled popup videos that shriek at me with shit I didn’t sign up for. I no longer read the articles and increasingly I will also not watch anything on YouTube. Facebook has figured out that the only way many of us can be bushwhacked with an ad is to interrupt a video and put it in the middle.
I have a two-word answer to that, Mr. Zuckerberg, who not only sold our privacy to the highest bidder but whose product, among others, has contributed vastly to the ripping of our social fabric. I am very rarely on FB any more, for that and many other reasons. With FB’s expert roiling of tensions and terror, it just makes us that more sick. That ends up being just that much more cancer visited upon us, for as the anger algorithm works to raise our blood pressure, FB rushes in to sell us more products based on that anger.
Without cool, green, blue, quiet spaces where we can be soothed by nature’s noises and the lapping of waves, without spots away from those hikers who bring in their portable speakers to blast those of us who left town specifically to get the hell away from precisely that kind of noise, we are being driven mad. Mentally ill? No. I beg to differ. We are being driven mad by useless blather, drivel, exhortations to take this or that pill, eat this bag of Cheetos, BUY BUY BUY BUY BUY.
This Administration has sold off a great deal of the last of our quiet spaces in order to fill the pockets of those whom Trump desperately wants to please. The cost is beyond imagining. It’s bad enough that many of them are already overcrowded, people leave their turds and toilet paper next to streams, and folks go off into the hinterlands without a hint of sense (https://www.outsideonline.com/2330916/mount-whitney-climbing-accidents?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=WYM-08092018&utm_content=WYM-08092018+CID_18be57a98b43d606d8f44cf5bd90dc5f&utm_source=campaignmonitor%20outsidemagazine&utm_term=serious%20accidents).
The very spots that offer us all a modicum of relief have also been sold to the highest bidder.
Mentally ill? No. I doubt it. We need silence. We need quiet places to explore what lurks inside us and needs to be heard, seen, and acknowledged. We need meditative time, and spots away from the toxic intrusion of ad copy screaming at us.
We need to listen to the echoes of silence inside our own minds. Where there is quiet there is possibility.
Where there is silence, there is healing.
Where there is healing, there is peace.