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Lessons From a 1960s Folk Song

June 25, 2021

In 1964, on the album Wednesday Morning, 3AM, the Simon and Garfunkel song, The Sound of Silence, made its debut. It wasn’t the song as we know it today, a quiet echo with electric guitars rippling softly in the background. A stripped down acoustic version, the song didn’t get much airplay, and the album itself was a financial disaster, one which led the group to temporarily disband. But I wonder what it sounded like. How was it different from the song I know now? More importantly, you might be asking yourself, why am I talking about a song that came out more than five decades ago, long before I was even born? My son has recently been on somewhat of a classic folk/rock obsession. Songs by Frankie Valli, Rush, Fleetwood Mac, Simon and Garfunkel, and Hall and Oates litter his playlists. It constantly surprises and delights me that his musical taste is so eclectic—that he seeks more than what is popular, more than the easy tunes littering the airwaves—overplayed radio hits replaced by more interesting and individual interests.  I also find myself intrigued by the way music, especially, works its way into specific cultural moments, even for those who were born long after the music was created. 

But this song, The Sounds of Silence, has always captured my imagination. For more than the obvious contradictions—to be obvious, does silence make a sound? But also for the things it brings to mind that I think we sometimes forget. That we fill our lives with sound and hurry and mess and the ever present busyness of living, and in doing so we forget to listen for the deeper, more important parts of life. There is a line that says, “people writing songs that voices never share” that I think about a lot—because I believe that there are a lot of great ideas, a lot of important stories of small moments of unimaginable grace that are never spoken. And the world is poorer for it. So maybe it is not so much the sound of silence that intrigues me as much as why we do not fill it with the endless possibilities of our beautiful, blessed lives.

Why do we not tell the tales of the way our children grow so tall so quickly, so full of the contradictions of independence and need that they stumble over their own words and feet? Why do we dismiss as unimportant the way the sun slants in the late afternoon, or the way our elderly neighbors walk to the mailbox everyday, not for the mail but on the off chance of meeting somebody to sit and ‘have a chat’ with? Why do we fill the world with the noise of things when we could be praising people and the way they will reach out and touch one another on the shoulder when they are scared or happy or sad or so unimaginably full of wonder that they cannot say it in words and instead must feel the weight of another human to keep them tethered to the ground? Or the way that every once in a while someone will tell you a truth that speaks so uniquely to your heart that you cannot unhear it, no matter the noise that surrounds you? Why is there not more rejoicing and less despair and more laughter that rings out unashamed and makes you take notice, sitting straighter and looking around for the person living life with so much joy?

I belong to a faith tradition that believes in freedom of choice, but also teaches that we are answerable for the results of those choices, emphasizes that you must live accountably. From my point of view, there have been far too many lessons where the negative effects or consequences have been preached over and warned against and almost none where the opposite view is taken, and it makes me wonder whether we truly understand freedom of choice, because if we did I think we would also look at how we can open our arms and embrace the consequences of stepping bravely into the world and acting for good. As I have entered my forties and as my children have become young adults I have been increasingly aware of the ways we define ourselves and the impact that can have on our actions. I was born during the tail end of generation X, the original grunge music, loose jeaned, permed hair, slacker generation, a badge we wore proudly—we didn’t want to care about what was going on around us. Until suddenly, we did. But accepting that there is a consequence to our choices, even the choice to do nothing, to remain silent, is not a destination. It is a starting point. 

The Sound of Silence mourns the way that “silence like a cancer grows,” the words that could have been taught and the arms that might have reached out and the people who would not hear, but also the people who would not speak. When I graduated from my master’s program five years ago I wrote a thesis—168 pages of essays on life and the meaning I found in it. And I love those essays, and the snapshots of my children and my experiences and my family that they contain. I adore the effort that went into them, and what they represent. But I cannot help but think, if I were to write them again, today, they would be different. The marks on the page, the wavering tracks through narrative would be more than pretty, more than just stories. I would be brave. I would be unashamed. I would try to choose not only the good, but the meaningful. I would advocate. I would say, look at this, right here. This is important to notice.

Look, I know what everyone says about hindsight, and I am trying not to mourn the things I did not do, but to look forward and choose what I will do, what I want to do. And here is what I want—to walk along a sunny beach with my family by my side and revel in the world that contains so much magic and holiness and bright-eyed noticing, but also to see the way the world can beat us down as things fly apart and sicken and grow tired and lonely, and to not be confused by the immense dichotomy of it all, but to celebrate it, and speak out about it, and discuss it, and recognize it, and to avoid shoving the dark moments out of sight, for without them the brightness shines a little less bright, and a little less true, and to make an attempt at holding on to accountability and reason but also faith and joy and hope. And to listen to a sad song and think of all the ways the sadness makes me feel, and then walk away and fill my days with the sounds not of loss or regret but of stories that honor what I have seen and remembered and been told. The whispers, not of silence, but of life in all its ever increasing complexity, like the way a fifty year old folk song played on a teenager’s iPhone can still speak to our hearts and offer truth, and that….that brings me joy.